Statement Analysis: What Do Suspects’ Words Really Reveal?

In a statement written by a suspect in a homicide investigation, a significant change in noun usage occurred. A young man shot his wife in the face with a shotgun. The woman died instantly, and the husband claimed the shooting was accidental. Investigators asked the man to write a statement of the events that occurred during the day of the shooting. The husband wrote a detailed statement, using the noun “wife” seven times to refer to his wife.

He then wrote: “…I lost control of the gun. I sensed that the barrel was pointing in Louise’s direction and I reacted by grabbing at the gun to get it back under control. When I did this the gun discharged. It went off once and I looked over and saw blood on Louise’s face.”

What caused the husband to start using “Louise,” his wife’s first name? Did this occur at a significant point in the narrative? Prior to this point, investigators had normed the husband as using the noun “wife.” When the spouse went to church with her husband, she was “my wife.” When she later called to her husband, she was “my wife.” But when the barrel of the gun was pointing in her direction and when there was blood on her face, two critial points in the statement, the spouse was no longer referred to as “my wife.” She became Louise.

Investigators have determined that perpetrators find it nearly impossible to admit to harming a family member. The husband in this case could not admit that he had killed his wife. He removed the family relationship by substituting the name “Louise.” The husband also failed to introduce Louise to the reader. After using the noun “wife” seven times, the name “Louise” suddenly appears. The reader does not know for certain who Louise is. It only can be assumed that Louise is the wife, but the husband gave no proper introduction, such as “my wife, Louise.” The norm for healthy relationships is a proper, clear introduction. But in tumultuous relationships, introductions often are confusing or missing completely. The lack of a proper introduction most likely indicates a poor relationship between the husband and his wife.

Knowledge of this prior to the interview could assist investigators in uncovering the truth. Verbs Verbs express action, either in the past, present, or future. In statement analysis, the tense of the verb is of utmost importance. When analyzing statements, investigators need to concentrate on the tense of the verbs used. In a truthful statement, the use of the past tense is the norm, because by the time a person relates the event, it has already occurred.

For example, the following statement typifies the norm:

“It happened Saturday night. I went out on my back deck to water the plants. It was almost dark. A man ran out of the bushes. He came onto the deck, grabbed me and knocked me down.”

The next statement shows deviation from the norm:

“It happened Saturday night. I went out on my back deck to water the plants. It was almost dark. A man runs out of the bushes. He comes onto the deck, grabs me and knocks me down.”

The shift to present tense is significant, because events recalled from memory should be stated by using the past tense. The change to present tense could indicate deception. Knowing this, an investigator interviewing the victim of the second statement is forewarned that the account may be fabricated.

The use of past or present tense also is significant when referring to missing persons. In such cases, the norm is to describe the person in the present tense, as in, “I just pray that Jenny is all right.” When children are missing, in the parents’ hearts and minds, the children remain alive, sometimes long after the point of reason. As evidenced in the Susan Smith case, use of past tense almost immediately after the alleged abduction showed a significant deviation from the norm.

Extraneous Information

Extraneous information in a statement also can provide clues to deception. A truthful person with nothing to hide, when asked the question, “What happened,” will recount the events chronologically and concisely. Any information given that does not answer this question is extraneous. People involved in crimes may feel the need to justify their actions. In such cases, the information in the statements will not follow a logical time frame or will skirt what really happened. They also may include more information than is necessary to tell the story. In such instances, investigators should scrutinize this extraneous information and question why this person felt the need to include it.

For example, in a homicide investigation involving a young woman shot by her husband, the husband told police officers that he was cleaning his gun when it accidentally discharged. Investigators then asked the husband to write a statement about his actions on the day he shot his wife. He provided a detailed statement, writing at length about the rust on his gun and a previous hunting trip. He failed, however, to describe fully his activities on this specific day. The amount of extraneous information prompted the investigator to view the husband as a suspect.