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Interviewing erratic subjects.

During the morning, Smith appeared organized and coherent to his family and co-workers. Patrons of the small restaurant where he ate lunch report that Smith argued heatedly with Jones over some wages that Smith claimed were due him. The two men left the restaurant together, still arguing over the matter. Two hours later, police officers are holding Smith for Jones' murder. During initial questioning, Smith admits to killing Jones but claims that he was driven to do so by some irresistible impulse resulting from a delusional state. Smith exhibits erratic behavior during the questioning and as police officers transport him to the precinct office for booking. When the case goes to trial several months later, Smith's attorneys base their client's defense on the claim of insanity.

Although the defendant in this case clearly may have undergone a significant mood shift in the hours preceding the homicide, it does not necessarily indicate a true lapse into delusion. And, while the subject's erratic behavior during questioning might support his later claims of insanity, could it merely be the reaction of a person who has committed a reckless and life-changing crime? What information could investigators collect that would help prosecuting attorneys see that justice is served when a defendant claims lack of criminal responsibility due to insanity?

This article focuses on the insanity defense and observations investigators can make--as well as questions they can ask--that could assist courts in determining an offender's state of mind at the time an offense occurred. By collecting the right information, investigators can help the court make the appropriate decision regarding a defendant's sanity and ability to stand trial.


Despite a popular misconception to the contrary, the insanity defense is relatively uncommon in the American court experience. The legal elements upon which a subject is judged to be insane at the time of an incident vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Most, however, reflect the basic concepts of the American Law Institute (ALI) Rule, used in 20 states and all federal courts. The ALI Rule states, "A person is not responsible for criminal conduct if at the time of such conduct as a result of mental disease or defect he lacks substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of the law?

Courts often request that mental health professionals help assist in determining the mental state (mens rea) of subjects at the time of a crime. A primary concern of the court and mental health systems in this area is to determine what individuals intended as a consequence of their actions.

One of the methods mental health professionals use to assess the mental state of an individual is to conduct a mental status examination. A complete examination provides a description of the subject's current mental functioning by assessing various aspects of the individual's cognitive and emotional states. Specific areas assessed include the subject's general appearance and behavior, speech, thought processes, and judgment. These examinations can last as little as several minutes or extend for several hours.


Law enforcement investigators are not trained to conduct such extended or intense mental status examinations--nor should they attempt to do so. However, much of their training and experience in behavior assessment, interviewing, and interrogation affords them the skills needed to collect information that could prove very relevant in court.

Generally, information that investigators collect focuses on a subject's behavior and thought processes prior to the incident in question, at the time of the incident, after the incident, and behavior and responses during questioning. In some cases, two or more categories converge, for example, a subject might be apprehended at the scene and questioned within moments of the offense.

Behaviors do not occur in a vacuum; a person generally behaves with some consistency over time. Therefore, whenever possible, investigators should develop a behavioral time line for the information collected about a subject. In the case cited earlier, for example, Smith's coherent behavior in the morning--as witnessed and recounted to police by family members and co-workers--would help establish that the subject exhibited no outward signs of delusion in the hours leading up to the homicide.

Investigators can document several aspects of the subject's behavior that may provide insights for the court into the individual's mental state. These elements can be broken down into several broad categories--the subject's physical state, mood and affect, thought processes and perceptions, speech, and social interaction. When documenting each of these categories, investigators should note concrete examples and exact words used by the subject. Rather than simply noting that a subject was dressed "inappropriately," for example, investigators should document that the subject "wore his underclothing outside of his street clothes."

Physical State

Investigators can document much about a subject's physical state even before speaking to the individual. The best observations include detailed information about a subject's attire, as well as physical movements at the time of questioning. Investigators should note whether the subject was clean or dirty, well-groomed or unkempt, neat or disheveled, or whether the subject's clothing was appropriate for the day, season, or social circumstances, and specifically why.

Likewise, investigators should document any erratic physical movements on the part of the subject. These movements include visible indicators of restlessness, fidgeting, muscular rigidity or any inappropriate movements, e.g., hair pulling. Investigators also should note the absence of erratic movements.

Mood and Affect

Mood and affect reflect an individual's emotional state. Displays of anger, hostility, depression, apathy, and euphoria represent various expressions of mood. Investigators should note whether a subject displays emotions appropriate to the circumstances. Does the individual laugh while recounting the sad details of a loved one's death?

A person's mood can change from euphoria to depression over a relatively short time without necessarily indicating mental disorder. However, evidence of multiple, rapid, and extreme mood changes may indicate some type of disorder. Such changes in mood are referred to as a labile affect. The terms constricted or blunted are often used to describe individuals who do not express any mood or who remain "poker faced." More important than using the appropriate terms, though, investigators should include clear and specific examples--such as inappropriate laughter--that document a subject's mood and affect.

Thought Processes and Perceptions

Since individuals generally act in ways consistent with their thoughts and beliefs, mental health professionals and attorneys devote considerable effort to evaluating and understanding a subject's thinking and belief system. Investigators can document observable behaviors that may reflect aspects of a subject's thought processes, including the individual's insights and judgment, memory, and thought content. Information investigators provide to the court in these areas can be crucial in determining a subject's mind-set or mental condition.

Investigators should document subjects' awareness of who and where they are, as well as their ability to identify the day of the week, the month, and the current year correctly. Knowledge of these facts indicates at least a basic understanding of what is referred to in the mental health field as orientation x 3--recognition of person, place, and time. Impairment or disintegration of orientation usually follows a set sequence: first time, then place, then person.

Mental health professionals use various methods to determine degrees of memory impairment. Investigators can document the status of a subject's immediate and recent memory simply by intermittently repeating questions during the interview process. For example, at the end of an interview, an investigator could ask several questions covering material discussed in earlier stages of the questioning, noting similarities and differences in the subject's responses.

Thought content involves several areas of potential interest to the court. These include suicidal or homicidal thoughts, delusions, flights of ideas, and ideas of reference on the part of subjects.

As subjects speak or respond to specific questions, investigators should note both overt and covert threats that subjects make to themselves or others. Investigators also should document any statements that denote delusional thinking--false beliefs subjects maintain in spite of evidence to the contrary.

Investigators should be alert to the different types of delusional thinking individuals may exhibit. For instance, subjects may profess to being important religious figures or even fictitious characters (grandiose type); subjects may maintain an irrational belief that they are being followed, maligned, or prevented from achieving their goals (persecutory type); or they may believe that a person of stature, such as a high government official or a celebrity, is in love with them (erotomanic type). Likewise, it may be helpful for investigators to note a lack of delusional language on the part of subjects who exhibit otherwise erratic behavior.

Subjects exhibit flight of ideas when their conversation moves from one topic to another so rapidly and with such a lack of cohesiveness that others find it difficult to follow. When subjects believe that conversations and gestures in which other people engage refer to the subject when in fact they do not, they are displaying ideas of reference.

Subjects' words and actions also may indicate hallucination. Although hallucinations are most frequently visual or auditory, they can manifest in any of the five senses. Subjects suffering from alcohol- or drug-induced psychoses, for instance, often experience tactile hallucinations. Hallucinatory episodes can be either positive (seeing stimuli that are not present) or negative (not seeing stimuli that are present), though positive hallucinations are much more common. During questioning, for example, suspects may appear to be looking off to one side, appearing to be listening to a phantom voice. In such cases, investigators should elicit information from the subject pertaining to the possible hallucination and document the responses. Investigators also should note a lack of hallucinatory behavior on the part of subjects.


Investigators should document and describe the qualities of a subject's speech. Often, the volume level of speech reflects an individual's mood. That is, the speech of depressed persons tends to be subdued, while angry individuals tend to speak in loud, boisterous tones. Investigators also should note the pace of a subject's speech; it may range from slow and determined to rapid and pressured. Investigators should note any specific examples or any distinguishing features of a subject's speech patterns.

Social Interaction

How subjects interact with others--including law enforcement personnel during the interview--also may be of interest to the court. Investigators should document whether a subject acts in a guarded, provocative, or frightened manner. Likewise, investigators should note whether the subject appears cooperative or uncooperative, responsive or unresponsive.


If investigators have the time and resources to collect additional information, selected areas of the subject's history may be particularly useful to the court. Investigators can document any past contacts the subject may have had with private or public mental health professionals. The type of treatment received (inpatient or outpatient) should be noted, as well as the length of time in therapy, current medications, and past or present diagnoses. Investigators also should document any history of substance abuse.

In addition, investigators should briefly document the subject's social history. This biographical background data should include information concerning the subject's immediate and extended family, associates, occupation and work record, and any social support systems available to the individual.


Law enforcement officers come into contact with a wide variety of people. Many of these individuals behave erratically for various reasons. While investigators do not possess the time or the training to conduct mental health examinations, they do possess the skills to collect some of the information that the courts can use to determine whether subjects meet the strict standards necessary to qualify for the insanity defense. By collecting the right evidence and documenting specific characteristics displayed by subjects, investigators can help the courts ensure that the needs of society are served, as the rights of the mentally insane are protected.


M. Blinder, Psychiatry in the Everyday Practice of Law, 3rd ed. (Deerfield, IL: Clark, Boardman, Callaghan Press, 1992).

RELATED ARTICLE: Questions for Subjects

To assist mental health workers, a noted psychiatrist developed a mini mental examination that can be used to make partial determinations concerning an individual's mental status. Although investigators should not attempt to diagnose a subject using this examination, they can administer the questionnaire to collect information that may prove useful to the court as a case progresses.

By asking the following ten questions and recording the verbatim responses of an individual, investigators can provide important observations of the mental condition of a subject at the time of questioning. This information, along with the other observations and descriptions of the subject documented by investigators, later could prove invaluable to mental health professionals and prosecuting attorneys.

1. Where are we right now?

2. What is the location of this place?

3. What month is it?

4. What day of the week is it?

5. What year is it?

6. How old are you?

7. When were you born?

8. Where were you born?

9. Who is the current president of the United States?

10. Who was the president before him?

Mental health professionals use a scoring scale in conjunction with this examination to rank a subject's level of mental impairment. Although investigators can administer the examination, they should leave scoring of the instrument to professionals in the mental health field.

From A. Goldfarb in W.J. Kelly, ed., Psychosocial Crises (Springhouse, PA: Springhouse Corporation, 1992).
COPYRIGHT 1997 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related article on a mini mental examination
Author:Deshazor, George D.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Nov 1, 1997
Previous Article:Thermal imaging: much heat but little light.
Next Article:Integrated patrol.

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