Statement Analysis: What Do Suspects’ Words Really Reveal?

By Susan H. Adams, M.A.
Special Agent Adams teaches statement analysis as part of interviewing and interrogation courses at the FBI Academy.

This Article Originally Appeared in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 1996.

(In statement analysis, investigators examine words, independent of case facts, to detect deception.)

Susan Smith stood outside her burgundy sedan and released the parking brake. The car plunged down the ramp into South Carolina’s Long Lake, with her sons, Michael, 3, and Alexander, 14 months, strapped into their car seats. To cover her actions, Susan told police that the boys were abducted at gunpoint, launching a nationwide search for the victims and their abductor. During the investigation, Susan tearfully told reporters, “My children wanted me. They needed me. And now I can’t help them.”1

Yet, the boys’ father, David, who believed Susan’s story, tried to reassure her by saying: “They’re okay. They’re going to be home soon.”2

Police subsequently arrested Susan for the murder of her children. She was tried and convicted and is currently serving a life sentence in a South Carolina correctional institution. Many investigators use a technique called “statement analysis” to discern the truth in statements like the ones given by Susan and David Smith. In statement analysis, investigators examine words, independent of case facts, to detect deception. They also remain alert for information omitted and question why the suspect may have done so. Investigators then analyze the clues unintentionally provided by a suspect and use this insight during the subsequent interview.

In the case of Susan Smith, by analyzing the statements made by the victims’ parents, one could conclude that the father believed the boys were alive and the mother knew the children were dead. The key to this deduction lies in simple English grammar, specifically, verb tense. The father referred to the children in the present tense; the mother used the past tense. Of all times, when the “abducted” children really would need their mother, she speaks of them in the past tense, e.g., “They needed me.” The children could no longer want or need her because they were no longer alive.

This article gives a brief overview of statement analysis. It examines four components of statement analysis–parts of speech (pronouns, nouns, and verbs), extraneous information, lack of conviction, and the balance of the statement. A word of caution is warranted here. There is much more to statement analysis than what is provided in this article; space limitations preclude incorporating other statement analysis components, such as the remaining parts of speech and the numerous indicators of missing information. Still, armed with the information presented in this article, investigators will be able to use these basic techniques to gain insight into a suspect prior to conducting an interview. By learning more about a suspect and determining whether that person is being deceptive, they have a much better chance of identifying the guilty party and gaining a confession.

The Technique

Statement analysis follows a two-step process. First, investigators determine what is typical of a truthful statement, referred to as the norm. They then look for any deviation from this norm. Truthful statements differ from fabricated ones in both content and quality.3

Although spoken words can be analyzed, investigators inexperienced in statement analysis will find it easier to begin by examining written statements. Investigators can make transcripts of oral statements. Or, even better, they can have suspects write a statement that details what they did from the time they woke up until the time they went to bed. This account provides a totally untainted version of the day’s events and increases the validity of the analysis. Statement analysis is an aid that can be used to obtain a confession; it is not an end in itself. Therefore, whenever possible, investigators should analyze the statement before interviewing the suspect.

Important Parts Of Speech

Parts of speech form the foundation of statement analysis. To analyze a statement, investigators first need to examine the individual parts of speech, particularly pronouns, nouns, and verbs, and to establish the norm for each. If a deviation from the norm appears, they then should ask, “Why?”

Pronouns are parts of speech that take the place of nouns. Common examples of personal pronouns include I, me, you, he, she, we, they, and it. In statement analysis, particular attention should be given to the personal pronouns “I” and “we” and all possessive pronouns, such as my, our, your, his, her, etc. The Pronoun “I” Investigators have noted that truthful people give statements using the pronoun “I,” which is first person, singular. Any deviation from this norm deserves close scrutiny, for it could be an indication that the person is not totally committed to the facts in the statement and, therefore, is not telling the whole truth.

The following written narrative begins with a clear commitment, then shows a definite lack of commitment:

“I got up at 7:00 when my alarm went off. I took a shower and got dressed. I decided to go out for breakfast. I went to the McDonald’s on the corner. Met a man who lives nearby. Talked with him for a few minutes. I finished breakfast and drove to work.”

The first four sentences of the statement match the norm of first person, singular–the use of the pronoun “I”; the next two sentences show deviation, because this pronoun is missing from the statement. What caused the writer to stop using the pronoun “I”? Any change in the use of pronouns is significant, and at this point, investigators should realize that the statement now becomes devoid of personal involvement. Could there be tension between the writer and the man mentioned in the statement? During the interview, investigators should draw out specifics about this relationship to determine if this part of the narrative is really true or if the writer omitted information.