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

Hunter insists that things will be easier if Lee acknowledges this lesser crime. Hunter's words seem to swirl together as I watch him move his legs closer to Lee's. Hunter extends his hand for a moment, briefly touching his subject on the arm to help ease the anguish that is tightening across Lee's face. After several minutes of this, Lee's body jerks, and he desperately grasps at Hunter's forearm. He begins sobbing. He confesses: He blew the bully away, and left him lying at the doorstep.

I hadn't seen any micro-expressions on Lee's face. But the Sony mini-television screen we'd been watching had a screen about the size of a slice of toast. This fact, Hunter said, explained my inability to read the suspects' faces.

"The expressions were there, you just had to be in the interrogator's chair to see them," the inquisitor insisted.

During the reporting of this story, I was working on another article that involved a man I believed to be a self-serving dissembler. He seemed the ideal testing ground for Ekman's methods.

The man was under a court order meant to keep him from harassing another man. He resented the anti-domestic violence agency that had helped build a case against him.

Whether or not this man deserved to be officially restrained by court order, he was certainly a serious faxer of press releases. He sent me piles of missives that appeared to defame the anti-domestic violence group.

At my behest, the nonprofit sent me some faxes of its own. The competing piles of paper suggested that the man was being less than truthful in some of his complaints about the agency.

Like an interrogating officer, I courted my subject. We talked for a while about Latin American politics, foreign cities we'd both visited, airline travel. I was patient with his elliptical explanations, and I crossed my legs when he crossed his. When the time came, I showed him one of the documents that seemed to reveal him as a charlatan, and I kept my eyes on his face. I'm not sure if what I detected were micro-expressions, but I certainly saw his features roil. I saw slightly contracted orbicular muscles, inappropriate pauses, brief looks of unhappiness. The Darwinist connection between his emotions and face couldn't be contained.

After re-reading Ekman's book on lying, talking to several more law enforcement officers, and interviewing Ekman one last time, I've come to believe that his assertion is essentially correct: Charles Darwin, the greatest sleuth of the modern era, is now helping police officers solve crimes.

To me, this epiphany comes as a wave of relief. I dread the angry phone calls I sometimes take from a betrayed source once a story hits the streets: the society maven who thought she'd forged a personal connection while we studied her rare photo prints; the artist who felt I'd betrayed his confidence when I criticized an S.F. gallery show. I tell myself that my loyalty is to readers; to the truth, not to sources.

Cops should follow the same credo, Newberry says.
"The important thing is finding the truth. I don't care what your boss tells you, or what a judge tells you. You don't work for those people. You work for the victims, you work for the people of California, and you work for the United States."

So don't badger a confession out of a suspect just because other investigating officers say he is guilty. Instead, put your hand on the suspect's elbow, talk about baseball, families, wives. Look at his face when you finally ask for an alibi. Peer at his eyes, his neck, his mouth; they've got a story to tell.

Perhaps, he's telling the truth.

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