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Technique Sets the Truth Free
A lie detector expert says he can tell fact from fiction by considering what people don't say.
Paying attention to details helps expert get to the bottom of truth
Reprinted from "The Orlando Sentinel"
Orlando, Florida, Monday, September 23, 1991
by Christopher Quinn, of the Sentinel Staff
Most people know the story of wise King Solomon and the mothers of the two newborn babies. When one mother found her baby dead, she tried to claim the other child as her own. King Solomon was called to mediate.
Solomon suggested dividing the living baby in half. One woman screamed "No!" prompting Solomon to decide her reaction displayed motherly love and she should get the child.
Avinoam Sapir says Solomon could have saved himself the effort by using Sapir's technique for identifying liars.
Sapir is teaching investigators nationwide how to get at the truth by analyzing what people say.
"Most people don't lie," said Todd Brown, a Seminole County detective. "People will tell us what happened, but we don't listen."
Brown is one of 3,500 people trained by Sapir, a lie detector expert and former Israeli police officer in Scientific Content Analysis Scanning. The premise is that people almost always tell the truth, even when trying to lie. The truth is just hidden when people lie, Sapir says.
He says that when crime suspects or victims are interviewed, the way they use the words "we" or "he and I" are profoundly important in detecting deception.
"What they omit is usually more important that what they've told you," Brown said in an interview.
Sapir developed his technique after noticing a pattern in confessions. In most cases, when people admitted crimes their confessions did not contradict earlier statements.
In one such case a few years ago a woman was being interviewed about the death of her husband. She said she heard a shot, walked into a room and saw her husband in a pool of blood. All of that was true.
The woman just failed to mention that she was the one who had pulled the trigger. Nothing in her eventual confession contradicted her first statements.
Also important is the order in which people relate events. Consider King Solomon's case. The first woman told the king, "Her son is dead. Mine is alive," but the second said, "My son is alive. Hers is dead."
For the baby's real mother, Sapir says, "it was important to her that the baby would remain alive," so she mentions that detail first. The other mother was more interested in seeing the living baby die, so she mentioned that first.
Another example Sapir cites comes from a Dear Abby letter. A woman wrote that her son had some sort of a problem but her husband was not understanding. She wanted to know what she could do to make her husband understand.
But in the letter, the woman mentioned herself, her son and her son's dog before she mentioned her husband. And she gave the names of her son and the dog but didn't name her husband.
"She rates the dog ahead of her husband," Brown said, showing that her real problem is with her husband, not the husband's relationship with the son.
Sapir has used his technique to analyze a 30-year-old Jupiter woman's allegations that William Kennedy Smith raped her March 30. Sapir obtained transcripts of five police interviews with the woman. His 50-page report concludes: "He didn't rape her. It's as simple as that."
Sapir said the woman's statements are filled with contradictions and that her memory is hazy. In the statements she admits taking a muscle relaxant and having five drinks later. The muscle relaxant should not have been mixed with alcohol.
"This is really amazing," Sapir said. "Nobody looked at what she really said."
Another part of Sapir's program is a questionnaire he developed. Crime victims or suspects are asked to answer open- ended questions.
Brown used the questionnaire recently when a young boy accused his mother's boyfriend of abuse. Brown asked the mother and the boyfriend to answer questions about the allegation.
The mother was not a suspect, but she wrote statements in which she, on the surface, denied abusing the child. Her answers actually told Brown not only that she was abusing the child but that she was doing so because she despised the boy's father. Her answers also told Brown she didn't think she would be caught.
The case is pending.
Brown was concerned that publicity about the questionnaire and Sapir's methods would help criminals figure out how to defeat the technique. Sapir said that is impossible.
"I don't mind giving the crook the questionnaire for three days to go and sleep on it. If he answers he will fail," Sapir said.
In fact, one investigator trained by Sapir later became an embezzlement suspect. He filled out the questionnaire and failed it, basically confessing to the crime even as he attempted to deny it.
Once investigators detect deception using Sapir's technique, they can confront their suspects in attempts to gain confessions.
The technique would be helpful in many professions, Brown said. Doctors could use it to elicit information from patients who are embarrassed about an illness. Salesmen could use it to find out what prospective customers are thinking.
So far, Brown is the only person in Central Florida to take the course, and he said he's still a novice. But he's already putting his training to use in a number of cases. He said the technique is just one of many tools at his disposal for solving crimes.
The training in not easy. It comes in the form of a $600, four-day seminar in which students work for about 12 hours a day. The next Florida seminar is in December in Miami. Brown hopes more investigators attend.
"Look," he said. "People want to tell you what they've done. They want to confess to you. We just have to listen."