Method to the Madness – Officer Reid’s Torture Technique

We have, over and over, referred to the specific method of interrogation that was used on the Fairbanks Four AND on many alibi witnesses who were questioned. We have heard from these people that their interrogations or interviews were some of the worst experiences of their lives. Some, even a decade and more later, still suffer nightmares about the experience. These people have done a wonderful job describing how this interrogation technique feels. We want to also help you all understand how it works. And the best place to start is the very beginning, so bear with us for what is going to be a long, but very informative post.

From America’s earliest days as a country well into the 1940’s, suspects of crimes were by policy routinely interrogated with a method known as the “third degree.” Some highlights of this technique included violent beatings, holding heads under water, starvation, threatening to kill a suspect and their families, sleep deprivation, electrocution, and a slew of other nasty tactics that make water-boarding sound like a fun jaunt through a sprinkler on a sunny summer day. These tactics were the rule, not the exception, and officers were trained to use torture because it worked.

These methods produced many confessions, and sent many confessed murderers to their prison cells and graves. There is no question that the third degree was an effective way to get confessions. But by the 1930’s, scholars began to notice that many of these confessions were false. The public became increasingly critical as well and people began asking a lot of questions. When hundreds of people were beaten at rallies the press reports were not favorable. NAACP began an anti-lynching movement. A new era was on the horizon and suddenly the general public was not content with the status-quo. A civil rights movement was a-brewin’.  This whole third degree thing was, after all, pretty outdated. Decades and decades old. It was time for a change, and it was clear that the third degree had to at least begin to die out with the 30’s. With no alternative available the third degree continued to be the standard through most of the 1930s.

By the 1940, the practice of physical torture in order to elicit confessions was rapidly falling out of favor. Several courts had found it to be unconstitutional, forcing the practice underground. Investigators tried beating people with rubber hoses so that there would be less bruising, but it was clear that a more lasting alternative was needed. Society (including most police officers), thankfully arrived at a point where most people were not too keen on confessions being beaten, starved, dunked, and cut out of suspects. No, it was time for something more civilized.

Enter John Reid – an Irish cop from Chicago with no background in psychology whatsoever. If the American law enforcement had not been so desperate for a less violent but effective form of interrogation, his psychology-based method could well have been laughed off. But sometimes timing is everything. Reid had a gift. He could, without beating someone, persuade them to confess. We will never know if Reid himself had a gift for obtaining true confessions, false confessions, or both, but we do know he got more than 5,000 of them during his career. He shared and taught his technique. Eventually, he published a book on interrogation –  it came at the perfect moment in history, and it was rapidly adopted. In lieu of physical torture Reid’s book recommended something equally as effective but much less likely to leave visible marks: psychological torture!

The Reid Technique of Interrogation was simple, easy to learn, and it worked! It produced confessions! As a matter of fact it worked better than old-fashioned torture. So, police officers across the country and world began to use his 9-step process. By the time 1960’s passed the third degree had been all but replaced by the Reid Technique. The process works something like this:

The first order of business is to perform a non-accusatory interview, review the evidence, and be reasonably sure that the suspect is guilty of the crime. The 9 steps are supposed to be used on people who are GUILTY of a crime, so it is important to be reasonably sure that you are dealing with the perpetrator. So, how do investigators know they have the right guy? Basically, one of two ways. In the first scenario, they have mountains of evidence (eye-witnesses, fingerprints, found the guy at the murder scene covered in blood and holding a knife – that kind of thing). In the second scenario the officer determines that the person is guilty using their expertise in psychology. You know, the expertise they got in the book written by a guy with no background in psychology. Sadly, as with many of life’s crappy ideas, the Reid Technique of interrogation often fails before it even begins.

Because the investigator believes they can spot guilt just by looking at or interacting with a suspect (and in fact have been instructed that they can) these investigators rely on this  super-power to be sure that they have the right guy. The good news? One person did do a study which concluded that investigators are better than the average joe-shmo at spotting guilt. The bad news? That guy would be John Reid. After he finished pretending to be a psychologist, he moved on to the illustrious position of pretend-scientist. The other bad news? Pretty much every other study done on the topic shows that police officers are no better than spotting a guilty person than the average citizen, and sometimes worse. But the problem is that unlike the average citizen they BELIEVE they have the right guy. And as soon as they are sure they have the guy, Reid interrogation process beings in earnest.

Once the investigator is sure he’s got the right suspect, he starts the nine step process. Here are the nine steps:

  • Step 1 – Direct Confrontation. Lead the suspect to understand that the evidence has led the police to the individual as a suspect. If there was no evidence, lead them to believe this by MAKING UP evidence. (Case Example: Telling Eugene there was blood all over his shoes, telling George that a science lab had matched his shoe to the victim, telling Marvin that eyewitnesses and tire tracks proved his car was at the scene).
  • Step 2 – Shift the blame away from the suspect to some other person or set of circumstances that prompted the suspect to commit the crime. (Case example: Suggesting that Kevin was the ringleader, that the others were just in the wrong place at the wrong time). That is, develop themes containing reasons that will justify or excuse the crime. (Suggesting that perhaps the victim had used racial slurs, was gay, had ripped them off, that it was a gang initiation). Themes may be developed or changed to find one to which the accused is most responsive. (Themes were changed constantly, probably because none of the accused responded with anything but denial to the theories).
  • Step 3 – Don’t let the person say they are innocent. Reid training video: “If you’ve let him talk and say the words ‘I didn’t do it’, and the more often a person says ‘I didn’t do it’, the more difficult it is to get a confession.” (Case example: They tried to interrupt or correct Marvin every time he claimed innocence, and verbally attacked George and Eugene when they claimed innocence or brought up that they felt they were being brainwashed).
  • Step 4 – At this point, the accused will often give a reason why he or she did not or could not commit the crime. (Example: George saying he would never do something like that, Eugene saying he was just not that kind of person, Marvin pointing out that it was impossible) Try to use this to move towards the confession.
  • Step 5 – Reinforce sincerity to ensure that the suspect is receptive.
  • Step 6 – The suspect will become quieter and listen. Move the theme discussion towards offering alternatives. If the suspect cries at this point, infer guilt. (Shara David’s interrogation is a great example – when she was so terrified that she was crying they inferred guilt).
  • Step 7 – Pose the “alternative question”, giving two choices for what happened; one more socially acceptable than the other. The suspect will choose the easier option but whichever alternative the suspect chooses, guilt is admitted. (Case examples: Eugene – I think you ran away when the assault got real bad, or were you the ringleader? Which was it? George – You seem like a nice person, I think you only kicked the kid a few times? If you won’t admit that, we’ll have to assume you were really involved. So, were you a little involved, or very involved? Marvin – Maybe you just drove the car, or did you participate in the assault? With witnesses Edgar , Vernon, and Conan the choices were, did you commit this murder or did you witness your four friends together that night?)
  • Step 8 – Lead the suspect to repeat the admission of guilt in front of witnesses and develop corroborating information to establish the validity of the confession. (Case examples: None. This step did not succeed, they immediately recanted their statements and no evidence ever corroborated them)
  • Step 9 – Document the suspect’s admission and have him or her prepare a recorded statement (Case examples: None. Neither Eugene nor George ever prepared a confession).

To give John Reid and his modern associates some credit, they recognize that this method produces confessions, and that it produces confessions from the innocent and guilty alike. So, they stress that investigators must not start in on a suspect until they are reasonably sure they are guilty. And really, that makes sense. Here is an interrogation method that will nearly always produce a confession, so if used on a guilty person, that is a good thing. But when it is used in the innocent, it is a recipe for disaster.

When this method is exposed and examined it seems – well, barbaric. Out of time. Like some brutal junk-science from the 40’s cooked up by an unqualified nut. And it seems that way because IT IS. The Reid Technique is crap. It is illegal in many places, considered controversial at best and criminal at worst by scholars, and the winds of society are already changing. Someday, probably someday soon, this will go the way of the third degree. The Reid technique will disappear into an embarrassing chapter of our history where it belongs, and we will progress.

In a world where it is very well established that false confessions happen, how can a person tell a false confession from a real confession? Once in possession of a confession, a well-trained investigator will take a look at the statements and make sure that they appear to be accurate. There are some tell-tale signs of a true confession:

1.)  Physical Evidence Backs Up the Confession. Did that happen in this case? Read the physical evidence for yourself HERE.

2.) The Suspect Provides Details of the Crime. If you isolated the statements of the Fairbanks Four you would not know who had been assaulted, where they had been assaulted,what day they had been assaulted, why they had been assaulted, who else was there, when it had happened, or ANY other detail of the crime. Read their interrogations: George, Marvin, Eugene, Kevin. For most of George’s confession he thinks that Eugene is the person in ICU. Eugene thought that a fight had taken place in front of Alaska Motor Inn over a dime bag of weed and that he is being questioned about that. Their statements in isolation mean nothing.

3.) The Suspect Does 80% of the Talking. Read any of the interrogations. The investigator does more than 90% of the talking, the suspects less than 10%.

4.) Circumstantial Evidence Lines Up. For example, in most true-confession scenarios, an investigator will find that the accused has no alibi, or was seen acting suspiciously, or seen with their co-conspirators. They do not usually find that the suspects were miles and miles across town, attending a wedding reception, at a party, or spending the post-murder hours dancing away. See timelines for Kevin, Eugene, Marvin, and George to judge the circumstantial evidence for yourself.

5.) The Confession Reveals Motive. No one at any time has ever been able to connect the Fairbanks Four to the victim, to the victim’s whereabouts that night, or establish motive of any kind (beyond that the suspects were wild Natives).

SO……in the case of the Fairbanks Four, the use of the already shady Reid Technique went wrong before step one. Long before the investigators and the Fairbanks Four came into contact, a fundamental problem already existed in that the training the investigators received was flawed, and the the background of the four was poorly matched to the tactic.

But even with the stage set for disaster, if the investigators had adhered to the first step of the technique, things would have likely ended before they began. There was no evidence to indicate that the teenager in custody was tied to the crime in any way, let alone any evidence to make the investigator “reasonably sure” he was guilty. If the Reid technique of interrogation had been applied properly, these suspects would have been dismissed after the non-accusatory interview. Should they have been erroneously interrogated after the interview, their interrogations should have been ceased when investigators realized the boys in custody were underage, intoxicated, or had questionable memory due to intoxication. If that fail-safe failed, the interrogations should have been dismissed when they failed to meet even ONE of the litmus tests of an accurate confession. Yet…..they were not. This case serves as a scathing expose of the weaknesses of the antiquated and ill-founded interrogation method. The Reid Technique is the corrupt foundation on which many injustices are built.

We wish we could say that this interrogation tactic failed with horrific consequences only for the Fairbanks Four. Sadly, it has led to so many wrongful convictions that it would be impossible to enumerate them here. Perhaps one of the best examples is the case of the Norfolk Four which became the subject of a very well done PBS Frontline program called “The Confessions” which you can and should read about HERE.

Want to read more? Check out these articles and references. Criticism and evidence that debunks the validity of the Reid Interrogation Technique is so prolific that this is a miniscule sampling:

Click to access Arguments%20Against%20Use%20of%20the%20%20Reid%20Technique%20CLRv10i2.pdf

Click to access icprogramfinal.pdf

An Injustice Anywhere…..The story of the Englewood Four, who were exonerated today!

In the mid-nineties, four young minority men were interrogated for hours upon hours in the rape and strangulation murder of a sex worker. After these hours of incredible pressure, they confessed. Nearly immediately after their interrogations the four voiced their innocence, and stood by it steadfastly for all the years to follow.

There was no physical evidence of any kind linking the four men to the crime scene, the victim, or each other.

Still, they were tried, convicted, and served nearly seventeen years for a rape and murder based upon the terrified statements of a few teenagers.

Beginning to sound familiar?

The reality is that the Fairbanks Four are not alone; far from it. Convictions without evidence based on false confessions from young people are sickeningly common. Our society is led to believe that our justice system is righteous, and as such would be eager to seek out the instances when people have been wrongfully convicted and set the record straight. Sadly, the noble pursuit of justice for justice’s sake is sickeningly uncommon.

The Englewood Four were blessed to have DNA evidence in their case which could eventually be linked to other offenders. When a re-testing of the DNA linked the semen at the crime scene to a serial rapist and murderer known in his neighborhood as “Manic,” WHO HAD BEEN PRESENT AT THE SCENE OF THE MURDER WHEN POLICE ARRIVED, any rational person would assume that the state attorney would push for exoneration of the Englewood Four. Instead, he fought to keep them behind bars. Hard.

The good news? Today, these four men were exonerated. It took a lot of work – YEARS of work. 70,000 signatures on a petition. Representation from the Innocence Project, the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, the Exoneration Project of the University of Chicago Law School AND Valorem Law Group. But, today, their lives changed. Not one moment of the seventeen years that were stolen from them can be returned. Not one birthday, not one hug, not one Christmas present, not one quiet cup of coffee, none of the weddings or funerals they missed. Time can be stolen, but not returned. There is no restitution on this Earth to give back to these men what was taken from them.

The only silver lining in these heartbreaking cases – The Fairbanks Four, the Englewood Four, and the thousands of others like them – is that perhaps through their stories justice will grow stronger, corruption will weaken, and someday the most important factor in criminal court will be whether or not a citizen has committed a crime, not the designs of power-hungry or deluded men in power, not the color of their skin, their age, or the depth of their terror. Perhaps the difficult road that the Englewood Four walked will help to clear the way for the Fairbanks Four and many more innocent people.

Let us not be discouraged by the scope of injustice, let knowledge of that feed our determination to overturn it. Let us be joyful today for the exoneration of Vincent Thames, Terrill Swift, Harold Richardson and Michael Saunders, and inspired by their success.

One thing they did well was spread the word and gather petition signatures. Help the Fairbanks Four by signing their petition HERE and asking your friends to do the same.

Below is an excerpt of the Innocence Project press release and a few articles on the Englewood Four:

“Saunders, Richardson, Thames and Swift have spent most of their adult lives in prison. They were between the ages of 15 and 18 when they arrested. Based on false confessions and without a shred of physical evidence, they were wrongfully convicted and sentenced to 30-40 years in prison. Their cases, and others in Cook County, reveal a dangerous pattern of injustice based on false confessions. The Innocence Project is calling on Cook County to conduct a review of all cases involving juvenile confessions. In the past four months, ten people have been exonerated through DNA testing in Illinois after being unjustly convicted based on confessions they gave as teenagers.”,0,6722720.story

The Truth About Courage – Marvin’s Interrogation

If you live to be 100 and half as many people have half as many nice things to say about you as the people who lived alongside Marvin for his short 17 free years, you could be proud of your legacy. His supporters are remarkably confident in his nature, and adamant that he could have never committed such a senseless act of violence. And if Marvin’s interrogation is a window into his character, it is easy to see why he suffers from an abundance of supporters.

Marvin, unlike the other accused, was not intoxicated the night of October 12, 1997, and was not intoxicated at the time of his interview. His state of mind was likely clearer, and it would have been much harder to cast doubt into his mind about his movements that night. Clearly, he had advantages that the others did not, and in many ways the differences between the interrogations help us to understand the difference between confronting this type of pressure in a weakened state versus a strong state.

Marvin’s interrogation transcripts tell his story perfectly and need little introduction, except to say that much like in Eugene’s interrogation, the police were relentless. They lied. They tried every angle. Many, perhaps most, men falter when they are tested to such a degree. Marvin did not.


“Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.”  – Mark Twain

The Truth About Fear – George’s Interrogation

 George did not confess.
  He did, after hours of pressure, make incriminating statements.
 George was so drunk on the night of October 10, 1997 that he couldn’t remember much of the night, and was perfectly primed for deception.
    The police lied to him about evidence, lied and said his friend’s said he was at this crime scene, lied and said blackouts are scientifically impossible, lied and gave him two choices: admit you were there, or be framed for a brutal beating and sexual assault of a child.
   Please, read the post about Eugene’s Interrogation, and use the links in it to educate yourself about false confessions. Much of what is said regarding false confessions is of huge significance in George’s interrogation as well, but for brevity do not want to rehash it in this post.
   George’s interrogation began at the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. Although it is required by law that interrogators record all of an interrogation, George’s transcripts have some glaring issues. First, logic makes it seem that the interrogation began long before the recording began. Secondly, mid-way through George says “I want to go home.” If, in fact, he had asked to go home the police would have HAD to let him go. But they allege that the detective stepped out of the room, George said that to himself, and then the detective re-entered. His police interview following the statement “I want to go home” was deemed inadmissable in court, which means that the incriminating statements he made toward the end were not used to convict him.
   George, like Eugene, was incredibly intoxicated during his interview. He began drinking the night before and drank through the morning and into the afternoon. He came to the hospital with a hurt foot. Crystal Sisto, his girlfriend at the time who spent the night with George says he hurt his foot when a wrestling match between he and his cousin over the last cigarette went from lighthearted to a bit too intense. George did not remember how he hurt his foot. He told the nurse he hurt it in a fight. The nurse decided that his hurt foot was connected to the victim dying in ICU and alerted police, who established that he knew Eugene Vent (already being questioned) and came to the hospital to question him.
   Through much of the interrogation he is confused. For example, he thinks that Eugene is actually the victim, and person in ICU. He denies involvement for most of the interview. For hours they insist that his friends have said he was there at the crime scene and kicked John Hartman. When he tries to call one of the named friends, they tell him he cannot. Like in Eugene’s interrogation, the police lie about the evidence, they tell him that there is blood on his boot, that his footprint has been matched to the victim’s wounds. George had been blacked out drunk for much of the night, and in reality knew little of his movements after about 1:30am.  After the detective comes in and says they have Marvin Roberts, he finally relents and agrees to the scenario the police have been laying out for may hours. Perhaps it was a tipping point – Marvin was well known as an honest, sober kid. Believing that Marvin had said he was there may well have convinced him that he was.
     The premise the police use through George’s entire interrogation is saying that a claim of being blacked out drunk was a lie, that it is scientifically impossible (this, of course, was itself a lie). George asks for a hypnotist to help recover the memory. He tells them repeatedly that he is scared. For hours he insists he does not remember much of the night. The interrogators insist that his options are to admit having kicked the victim a few times, or continue claiming that he has no memory and have them “assume the worst.” They insist that the others are pointing fingers at George if he claims to have no memory. They insinuate that he will be framed for a brutal beating and sexual assault of a young boy if he doesn’t admit to having been there.
      After hours, George caves and agrees that he was probably there, and probably kicked the person. Immediately following admitting that he was there, he recants and says “I don’t f**king really remember all that sh*t.”
     As the interview continues he answers most questions with “I don’t know” or “I don’t remember.” The tape then cuts out again, and when the recording begins again he answers a series of questions. Ultimately, he is given two scenarios. One is bad, one is worse. He picks the lesser of two evils.
      When I read this interrogation, I hear the voice of a terrified incredibly drunk friend navigating the worst experience of his life, and know now what he probably feared most at that time – that this interview was the first in a series of events that would separate him from his family, from the daughter he loved perfectly. That type of fear is a tactic, the truth is that fear can be used like a weapon to break a person down. The truth is that a drunk, confused, manipulated, scared kid will say about anything to get away from that kind of fear, even if the reprieve is brief.

The Truth About Deception – Eugene’s Interrogation

The true definition of con·fes·sion is: Noun. A formal statement admitting that one is guilty of a crime.

The truth is Eugene did not confess. But he did make incriminating statements after many hours of interrogation.

The truth us that the police, media, and prosecuters led all of Alaska to believe in those first days that he had confessed.

The truth is that the issue of false confessions is one of the hardest elements of this case for most people to understand, but we are not going to avoid it. We are going to address it right away.

The truth is, police can lie to a person they are interrogating. Period. It is legal, and it is common practice.  Their right to do so has long been protected and upheld in the highest courts of this country.

The truth is, the average Native kid from Interior Alaska, especially before this case, had no idea that the police can lie to you.  We were raised to believe that police should be honest.

The truth is, the police can tell some pretty compelling lies. They can, for example, tell a drunk seventeen year old who was blacked-out drunk for half the night that there is blood on his shoes. That his friends say he kicked someone. Lies that are hard to imagine. The truth is that they can use lies like weapons, to take someone’s mind apart.

The truth is, they did that to Eugene. It took over eleven hours.

The truth is, eventually, he fell for it.

The truth is, the interrogation technique the FPD used on Eugene is not used anymore, because it turns out it is a good way to trick someone, but not a good way to find out the truth.

The truth is, false confessions may be the single leading cause of wrongful convictions in homicide cases.

The truth is that more than two-thirds of the DNA-cleared homicide cases documented by the National Innocence Project were caused by false confessions.

The truth is that 93% of false confessors are men. 65% are under 25 years of age.

The truth is, multiple false confessions to the same crime were obtained in 30% of the cases, wherein one false confession was used to prompt others.

The truth is, the majority of people polled believe that a person would “never” or “almost never” confess to a crime they had not committed.

The truth is, most of us are blessed enough to have never had our psyche tested to that point. We are lucky that we do not know firsthand what it feels like to be interrogated for murder, and in reality we do not know how we would respond.


READ EUGENE’S INTERROGATION HERE. For most of the interview, Eugene thinks they are trying to bust him for hooking a friend with weed, and doesn’t actually know what they are questioning him about. Remember that the “evidence” the police are citing is fictional, that Eugene is extremely intoxicated, and scared. Do your best to put yourself in HIS shoes.

READ WHAT EXPERTS HAVE TO SAY ABOUT FALSE CONFESSIONS HERE, HERE, and HERE, in their sites dedicated to the topic. Also, read HERE in Scientific American, HERE in the Economist, or HERE in the Huffington Post.

If that is not enough, Google it. Look it up on Wikipedia. Look anywhere – what you will find is the suprising truth about lies. Stay tuned to hear what Eugene himself has to say about the experience.