The Face of Lying

UCSF's Paul Ekman, a national expert on the science of lying, helps police (and journalists) determine whether perps (or presidents) are practiced prevaricators

We also learned how to mirror interview subjects.
"You don't want to get out of sync with your spouse. You like the harmony, you like being in sync. What do you contribute this to?" he says, with his characteristic, malapropistic flair.

Shake his hand when you arrive, perhaps tap a knee or shoulder during conversation. Touch, Newberry says, is a powerful tool. Talk about baseball, football, children, growing up, he says. Sit the way your subject sits. Cross your legs not long after he crosses his. "Even get in time with their breathing," he says.

After a half-hour or so of this, try leading. Does he cross his arms when you cross yours? If he does, you're in. The time has arrived to make him lie, and watch his face.

The next day belonged to Dr. Mark Frank, a co-researcher with Ekman who teaches at Rutgers University.

After a half-day of explanation about the facial and body language that might -- or might not -- betray a lie, Frank asked members of the class to watch 20 brief video clips of volunteers responding to Ekman's badgering accusations.

"Did you take the money?"
"No, I did not."
"I think you're lying."
"Well, I did not take the money."

Members of the class included a pair of Harley-riding narcs; a steely yet ingratiating fireplug of a Navy chief; a pair of pleasant, smallish women who worked as child-abduction investigators in Sacramento; and about 20 other law enforcement officers from various Northern California locales.

We were told to pay special attention to the faces and body language of videotaped volunteers, then mark on a piece of paper whether we thought each was lying or not.

I had read Ekman's book Telling Lies, so I thought I knew the trick to what I was sure was a trick question. "I'll wait for the micro-expressions," I thought, "and not be fooled by the ordinary cues that our instincts tell us are signs of lies."

The first clip was of a young smartass who looked to be lying through his teeth, describing in the most facile way how he had not taken $50 from the wallet in Ekman's briefcase.

I waited for the micro-expression, but it never appeared. I knew what that meant, and marked him honest. The second one showed no micro-expressions either, nor did the next. I was flummoxed. Rather than mark all of the volunteers truthful, by No. 3 I had discarded the micro-expression trick and was going for broke, relying on my own instincts to tell the liars from the fools.

I correctly guessed the volunteers' truthfulness 75 percent of the time (a score that would have been 5 percent higher had I never heard of micro-expressions, and taken that first smart-ass liar for what he really was).

After the test, Frank carefully reviewed each of the tapes, pointing out to us the smirks, grimaces, pauses, and sighs that robbed the liars' tales of credence. But out of 20 clips Frank could identify only one micro-expression that matched the description in Ekman's book: "a fleeting facial expression ... so quick we had missed seeing it the first few times we examined the film."

One of the lying volunteers' brow had momentarily furrowed, then unfurrowed under Ekman's questioning. That was it. Sure, there were masked expressions, facial tics, strained necks, and out-of-control foreheads -- just as Ekman had said. But there was only one face that could truly be described as displaying the Platonic ideal of a micro-expression. Ekman's own subsequent explanation -- that micro-expressions only occur on the faces of 10 to 20 percent of liars -- left me unconvinced.

I felt I'd been had. But as a journalist, I knew I was in a position to have him back.

Before I betrayed Ekman to several hundred-thousand SF Weekly readers, I wanted to learn how his techniques were used in solving an actual crime.

During a conversation at the hotel bar where we drank after class, I asked Newberry if there were any investigations where high-level interviewing techniques had been key to solving the case.

"Marvin 'One-Eye' Johnson," he said, without missing a beat.
Johnson, as it turns out, was the sort of criminal who is so evil, so sadistic, so possessed of a willingness to wantonly kill, that his crimes almost proved beyond the reach of criminal jurisprudence. He repeatedly pressed the back of a red-hot spoon into the face of an Emeryville woman, hoping she'd betray the location of her turncoat boyfriend. Johnson murdered a gang rival on the street. He gunned down another man in a burger joint, shouting, "This is Marvin, and I'm taking my streets back." He pipe-bombed a Richmond housing project in 1991 in a campaign to monopolize cocaine distribution in the northeast Bay Area.

And once in jail, he set about a scheme to murder people who might be witnesses against him -- and their families. Johnson's program of extreme violence was successful; the prosecutors who had hoped to press federal racketeering charges against him soon found themselves without the witnesses necessary to try the case.

This situation was a perfect test for the Ekman-led school of modern interviewing techniques. The first positive turn came in the Cook County jail in Chicago, where a former Johnson henchman had been picked up after fleeing the clutches of the Richmond drug-lord's gang.

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