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Documenting and Reporting a Confession with a Signed Statement.

A Guide for Law Enforcement

Two seasoned detectives interrogate a suspect who initially denies all involvement in the heinous crime under investigation. Employing a ruse, conducting a role-play, revealing evidence collected, exaggerating potential outcomes, and using other cleverly played exchanges enable the detectives to reverse the suspect's position and eventually obtain a confession. The incident ends with one of the detectives pushing a pad of paper and pencil across the table and instructing the suspect to "write it down."

This scene is played out almost weekly in a popular television series, depicting the events impacting a homicide unit within a large police department. Hollywood dramatizations provide the viewer with an entertaining glimpse of police activities, such as the taking of a confession and its importance to the solution of criminal investigations, but usually fall short in describing the details surrounding these events. Real-life investigators know that their job is not complete until they have recorded the events properly in accurate reports and signed statements, which contain the relevant facts and admissions necessary for expedient prosecution or further cooperative efforts. [1]


Most subjects feel an inherent need to lie or cover up their involvement in crimes. The ability to develop rapport with these subjects and induce cooperation represent skills that some investigators have mastered to increase their success rates for case resolution. [2] These investigators also recognize the importance of taking accurate and extensive notes during interviews. Moreover, departmental policy may necessitate preparation of an interview log (a document containing pertinent information about the individuals involved and actions taken during the interview) for certain situations. For example, interview logs often accompany interviews in which the advice of rights warning and waiver are required and when a suspect is interviewed on the premise of the investigating agency, even though not under arrest.

While seasoned investigators will attest to the excitement, exhilaration, and relief that often accompany the admission of wrongdoing by a criminal, they realize that they must follow this process with a thorough and accurate recording of the confession in the form of an investigator's report. Investigators also know that they can further enhance these reports by including signed statements. As with all investigative techniques, it is important to anticipate the legal requirements faced by prosecutors who inherit the results of evidence collection and are responsible for securing criminal conviction. They will rely on these reports and signed statements as proof of the admissions to violations of criminal code. Therefore, investigators must properly document these events in a suitable format.


Once subjects have confessed and provided a detailed explanation of their role in a particular crime, their signed statements will further support the official report to follow. Written in the first person, the statement follows a logical format and contains the subject's own words as much as possible. [3]

The Opening

The opening paragraph identifies the subject, the investigators, and the nature of the crime. The second paragraph further describes the subject's education and ability to comprehend the statement he prepares and signs.

The Body

The body of the statement employs language that the subject used previously in the confession or can understand. Because most subjects are not professional writers, investigators may assist in the formulation of these sentences. However, investigators should avoid composing statements that do not fit the subject's level of intelligence and language abilities or that contradict previous admissions. The statement should describe fully important general facts, including the events leading up to the crime, the subject's intent and motivation, how the subject committed the crime, and crime-specific items, such as the amount of money stolen or number of people victimized. The statement should reflect the same relevant facts recorded in the investigator's official report of the confession, but may summarize some details succinctly as long as the omission of this information does not change the context of the statement. For example, the following type of information may appear in a signed statement: In 1999, I came up with the idea to obtain money from my then employer, XYZ Insurance Company, by submitting false claims using the fictitious names of John Doe and Mary Jane and my knowledge of internal procedures for approval of claims payments. From March to June, I acquired over $250,000 in payments pursuant to my scheme to defraud XYZ Insurance Company. I deposited the claims checks into the fictitious-name accounts that I had established at First National Bank and subsequently withdrew this money for my personal use. However, the investigator's official report undoubtedly would contain greater detail of each fraudulent event, painstakingly obtained from a review of specific items of evidence with the cooperating subject. [4]

If appropriate, a paragraph reflecting the subject's acknowledgment of wrongdoing, regret, and intention to continue cooperating can further demonstrate the subject's ability to understand the consequences of his actions. Also, investigators possibly could use such a statement to discredit later attempts by defense attorneys arguing "state of mind" and "insanity" pleas.

The Approval

Whether typed by law enforcement personnel or handwritten by the subject, the statement should be single-spaced and ultimately reviewed (read aloud) by the subject who will initial corrections and write a final sentence acknowledging his understanding of the statement. I have read this (number of pages) page statement, have initialed all corrections, and I am signing it because it is true and correct.

Once the subject has completed the statement and has read it back to the investigators, the subject and the witnesses (who are typically the investigators) should sign and date the document. Occasionally, a second witness may include a third-party individual (nonlaw enforcement), such as a relative of the subject, a lawyer, or a representative from the victim business/institution where the interrogation occurred. The second witness signs as a witness to the subject's signature, and not necessarily the subject's admission. Investigators may have signed statements transcribed, with quotations, into the body of their official report, which details the entire interview. The original signed statement is then preserved as documentary evidence. Like other forms of evidence, investigators should refer to departmental policy or seek prosecutor advice before furnishing copies of signed statements to subjects, their attorneys, or other third parties.


False Statements

Newly assigned investigators and law enforcement trainees often wonder how to document statements that subjects make prior to a confession, such as false statements or denials that commonly dominate the first part of the interview. The extent to which investigators should record this information in a final report generally relates to the completeness of the confession and the investigators' abilities to corroborate the admissions with other evidence. After providing an initial denial, and other misleading information, (subject's name) acknowledged he/she wanted to cooperate with the (name of law enforcement agency) and thereafter admitted his/her involvement in this matter as follows illustrates how investigators can summarize these false statements and other extraneous items, such as rapport-building discussions, in their final official reports.

However, in the case of a subject who confesses and thereafter becomes a cooperating witness for the government, investigators must remember that prosecutors have an ethical and constitutional obligation to provide defense attorneys with any exculpatory evidence and with any information that reflects neg atively on the credibility of this witness. Although the previously suggested sentence is legally acceptable to this point, a codefendant's defense attorney subsequently may seek greater detail of these denials or false statements in an attempt to discredit this witness and the government's version of these events. Investigators can anticipate this possibility and document the misleading statements more thoroughly in the official report, followed by a transitional sentence which identifies the subject's acknowledgment of wrongdoing, willingness to cooperate, and subsequent confession.

Multiple Subjects

Some cooperative subjects will provide false information during and after a confession, which investigators always should include in their official reports. Cases involving multiple subjects typically include cooperating subjects who redirect blame or exaggerate coconspirators' roles in an attempt to minimize their own exposure. The investigator's report should include this information (the totality of the circumstances will determine later each subject's role and resultant prosecution), along with the factual details set forth in the confession. The report concludes with a transcription of the signed statement, prepared after the confession. Investigators should maintain interview notes and logs as supporting records for the official report until the matter is adjudicated.

Anticipating the confessor's later refusal to take the witness stand in a subsequent joint trial constitutes another consideration for signed statements in cases involving two or more subjects. In this situation, legal representatives may consider any references to codefendants in the confessor's signed statement as prejudicial to their clients' rights and possibly restrict using the statement as evidence. Several options exist for investigators to appropriately address this issue. One involves simply preparing the statement and then allowing prosecutors the discretion to redact portions that they cannot use. Alternatively, investigators may incorporate a paragraph into the statement (just after the introductory paragraphs) in which the confessor states his involvement in the crimes without naming the coconspirators. Another option involves preparing two separate statements, one relating all details of the offense as furnished by the confessor, and the other containing only admissions of the confessor that r elate solely to his guilt. [5] Whichever method they employ, investigators should remain consistent throughout the entire investigation.


Law enforcement officials understand the importance of sufficiently reporting investigative results to withstand the scrutiny of the legal system. A properly documented confession accompanied by a well-prepared signed statement increases the likelihood of swift and successful prosecution of criminals. Although many television and movie depictions of police obtaining confessions inaccurately portray or fail to emphasize this aspect of the confession, it remains a necessary part of effective police work.


(1.) The author based this article on the knowledge he gained during 12 years in the FBI's Detroit, Michigan, office, participating in numerous subject interviews and over 100 confessions involving bank robbery, violent crime, and white collar crime investigations.

(2.) For additional information on interrogations, see David Vessel, "Conducting Successful Interrogations," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, October 1998, 1-6; and Michael R. Napier and Susan H. Adams, "Magic Words to Obtain Confessions," FBI Low Enforcement Bulletin, October 1998, 11-15.

(3.) For illustrative purposes and to avoid confusion in the article, the author refers to subjects as males.

(4.) When investigators use evidentiary items during a witness interview or subject confession, they should avoid exposing original evidence to the interviewee and potentially tainting its forensic value for future use at legal proceedings. Investigators should prepare working copies or photographs of these materials beforehand in anticipation of the necessity for witness identification.

(5.) FBI Special Agent's Legal Handbook.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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