Michael Crowe: A Case of Poor Interrogation Technique
There is no single correct way to conduct an interrogation, just as there is no single correct way to write a novel or to design a building or to raise a child. However, there are certainly a number of incorrect ways to interrogate a subject, and the 2002 movie The Interrogation of Michael Crowe unfortunately demonstrates a number of them. "Unfortunately" because the movie is based on a real case and the examples of poor-to-the-point-of-unethical interrogation techniques had terrible consequences for Michael Crowe as an individual as well as for the rest of his already-grieving family. The police spent hours interrogated Michael, a fact that meant that he was unable to attend his sister's funeral, a fact that damaged the family as a whole.
The facts of the case as they are presented in the movie appear to be accurate when they are compared to news accounts of the crime. However, seven years after the movie was released there were dramatic new developments in the case. These will be discussed at the end of the paper since they are deeply relevant to the assessment of the interrogation that occurred although, of course, should not be used to frame the action of the play or judge the way in which only the known-facts at that time were used to create a narrative that blamed the police for extracting what many felt was necessarily a false confession from both Michael Crowe and his friends, all of whom played video games together, a fact that the police interrogators found relevant to their purported criminality.
The crime that police interrogators grilled Michael about was the murder of his younger sister, Stephanie. She was stabbed nine times while in her bed in January 1998. The rest of the family said that they were asleep at the time and heard nothing of the attack. Police immediately doubted that Michael, at the least, would have been able to hear the attack if someone had entered the house and killed his sister and his denial of any recollection of the attack was in fact not a truthful account but rather an admission that it must have been he who perpetuated the attack.
While the police suspected from the beginning that Michael (who was fourteen at the time) and two of his friends were the murderers. The family, however, were firm in their belief that the killer was Richard Tuite, a long-term felon whose life had been savaged by his schizophrenia. When the family asked the police to consider Tuite as the possible killer, the police declined to do so on the grounds that Tuite with his severe mental illness did not have the capability of committing such a crime without leaving behind substantial forensic evidence at the scene.
The description in the paragraph above of this phase of the investigation demonstrates two of the most serious problems that the police made as they attempted to find the killer of the young girl. The first of these mistakes was that the police had apparently determined to their own satisfaction that Michael and his friends were the killers at the very beginning of the investigation.
If I were the lead investigator on this case, I would have had a crime scene team do a thorough investigation of the site where the girl was killed. A forensic examination would have allowed investigators to begin with facts rather than theories. All investigations (except those in which there is absolutely overwhelming such as numerous eyewitnesses and a confession) should begin without the police being committed to a specific theory. If the police in this case had examined the evidence from the scene with an open mind they might well have found evidence that would have started them looking at Truite to begin with. Physical evidence provides a neutral starting point that the police in this case lacked, leading them to pursue the wrong suspects.
Well-established theories about investigation underscore the fact that while there will necessarily be some suspects at the beginning of any case who are more likely than others to be guilty, it is never good police work to make assumptions about who must be guilty before all the evidence has been collected. If an investigator begins his or her work after having already decided who should be convicted of the crime, it is all too easy for that investigator to ignore any evidence (even if this occurs unconsciously) that does not point to the person that the investigator has "selected" to be the obvious perpetrator of the crime.
The second major error discussed above is that fact that the police assumed that a mentally ill man like Richard Tuite was incapable of committing a violent crime without leaving behind evidence of his presence. One can see how such an assumption might follow from the fact that the police had already determined who was guilty (that is, Michael and his friends) and so failed to consider any other person. If the police had been neutral as to who might have been guilty, they would have conducted the interview in a different way.
One theoretical model of investigation that the police in this case would have been the Reid technique, which is a technique widely used in U.S. law enforcement agencies. This model has three different elements, none of which was properly adhered to in this investigation. These elements are 1) factual analysis; 2) interviewing; 3) and interrogation. As noted above, there was no adequate collection or analysis of the forensic evidence. Without this first element in place, the second two could never have been implemented properly, as was clear in this case. One of the most important aspects of this technique is that it is explicitly designed to avoid the elicitation of false confessions. This is partly because of the basis of the entire investigation on accurate physical evidence would itself have substantially limited the possibility of a false confession.
The police failed to consider Tuite as a legitimate much less likely suspect because they made superficial assumptions about what a person with schizophrenia is capable of doing. Schizophrenics range widely in their capabilities from being almost entirely disjointed from consensual reality to, in many cases, blending in perfectly well with the general public. It was probably true that at his most disabled that Tuite could not have committed the crime without leaving behind substantial evidence, but this would not have been the case when he was at his most functional.
If I were the principle investigator for this case, I would have consulted a psychologist or psychiatrist to have a better sense of what an individual with schizophrenia might have been able to accomplish and also how a schizophrenic would have been likely to behave.
The police also ignored reports by several witnesses that they had seen Tuite in the vicinity of the Crowes' house the night of the murder, a place that he had no reason to be. It was also the case -- which the family and neighbors informed the police about -- that Tuite at the time of the murders was obsessed with another girl who looked very much like Stephanie.
If I were the lead investigator in this case I would have taken a complete statement from each of the neighbors, both of those who had come forward and those who had not. With a complete set of statements, I would have been able to make a careful comparison of all of the statements. This thorough analysis would have allowed me to gather a substantial amount of information that would have created a more realistic list of suspects.
These facts alone should have made the police look very hard indeed at Tuite. The fact that they did not do so must have been related at least in large measure on the fact that they had already convinced themselves that it was a domestic killing and that Michael was the best suspect inside the family. Ignoring facts, especially those supplied by witnesses who have no stake in the outcome of a case, is bad police work. Of course, witnesses are often mistaken in what they see, and they can make false reports to the police, but given that a number of different witnesses saw Tuite at the scene, the police should have investigated him further.
The police did investigate Tuite to the extent that they tested his shirt for DNA evidence and found none there. However, the police failed to test the red sweatshirt that he was wearing over his shirt that night, even though the sweatshirt had visible stains on it. Having decided that Tuite was not the murderer, the investigators failed miserably in performing a proper investigation of all of the possible suspects in the case.
If I were the lead investigator, I would have ordered a more complete DNA analysis, an analysis that would have found the girl's blood on his sweatshirt at the beginning of…