Will Torture Get Confessions?

After arresting the Detroit terrorist on Christmas Day, several “experts” spoke through the media saying it was a mistake to take Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab into civil custody and allow him to have a lawyer.

Once he was “lawyered up,” he refused to speak.

The assumption was that if the authorities had free access to him, they could have worked him over until he confessed–to the plot and future threats. Underneath the “experts” urgings , were hints of torture techniques that have been used before.

Do these techniques work?

I’m certainly no expert myself on the issue but listen to a true story close to home of someone who was an expert at getting confessions.

Detective Dick O’Brien worked for decades for the Minneapolis Police Department. As a criminal defense lawyer, I knew Dick and like many others, always called him Father O’Brien when we saw him around headquarters or the jail.

Unfortunately, Dick died quite young as a result of years of chain smoking but I got to know him after he retired from the police department and took a job as an investigator in the Public Defenders office. He helped me with many cases.

A small man, he was quiet and thin. Dark curly hair and a dark complexion always seemed obscured by cigarette smoke ringing his head. I suspect that his eyes and ears were never blocked as he seemed to catch everything that went on around him.

Dick was an ex-marine and had been a tough street cop before rising to detective level.

We all called him Father O’Brien because he got more confessions out of murderers, rapists, robbers, and drug dealers than any other ten cops put together. Whenever I’d ask him how he did it so well, in his shy way he’d only allow a thin smile to reveal his secrets.

When we started working together, he’d often interview clients with me. These were the same types of people he’d interrogated just a few years earlier. I had the opportunity to see him work his magic.

I noticed several things he did:

–He knew the mindset of criminals–what they wanted, were afraid of, what motivated them

–He could pick up on the nuances and inflection in their words and body language that gave him information although he never talked like them–no street slang.

–He never pretended to be their friend.

–He always had control and kept the authority but never threatened them.

–Although he talked about “getting them a break,” he appealed to higher motivation inside of them–urging them to do what they knew was right–and confess.

He even had techniques that worked on different people. For instance, if he was questioning a black defendant, he’d always ask him “what would your Mama want you to do if she knew you were here?” With the white guys, he asked what their fathers would do if they found out. “He’d kick my ass,” was the usual response and they all confessed.

International terrorsts may be completely different that local murderers and robbers but the example Father O’Brien left, leads me to think some of his techniques would be useful today.

What do you think?

Visit my website at www.colintnelson.com

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About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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