By Chris Roberts
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
By Mike Billings
By Rachel Swan
By Erin Sherbert
By Joe Eskenazi
By Albert Samaha
"I hope," said the lady, "that you have not come to cross-examine me again?"
"No," Holmes answered, in his gentlest voice, "I will not cause you any unnecessary trouble, Lady Brackenstall, and my whole desire is to make things easy for you, for I am convinced that you are a much-tried woman. If you will treat me as a friend and trust me, you may find that I will justify your trust."
"What do you want me to do?"
"To tell me the truth."
-- Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Abbey
I'm sitting in the book-cluttered front office of a converted railroad flat in the Parnassus Heights neighborhood, knee-to-knee with the world's foremost scholar on lying.
And I think I feel my face twitch.
"I don't know what kind of story you're going to write. Are you going to make me seem like an evil or foolish person, or not? There's no way I can tell," says Dr. Paul Ekman, UCSF psychologist and perhaps the most quoted man in America on the subject of deception. "Either way, you'd tell me the same thing."
Ekman has spent decades peering into faces like mine, dissecting every muscular ripple and seeing through every phony smile, to chart a map of telltale expressions.
Ekman is the most prominent student of Charles Darwin's studies into the link between emotions and body language. Oxford University Press just published a "definitive edition" of Darwin's book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, edited and annotated by Ekman. Ekman has cataloged 7,000 subtly different facial expressions that now serve as a standard template for computer animators. By evolving Darwin further still, Ekman has helped parent a new school of police work, in which interrogators are kinder, gentler, more devious, and more effective than ever before.
The premise is simple. The retired cops who advise producers for the interrogation scenes on television shows like NYPD Blues don't know what their modern peers do: Bashing and hollering at suspects is for morons. If you're a smart detective, you cozy up to them; you become their friend; you get them talking; you wait for the lies. And, if you've been trained in the Ekman method, you watch their faces roil.
A scowl emerges -- for a moment only -- before it is smothered by an embezzler's tight smile. The terrified murder witness blinks for 3/4 of a second -- much too long -- before saying, "My back was turned." A child molester's flaccid neck strains for a moment, then the muscles around his eyes twitch as he hears this question: "Do children find you attractive?" Ekman has given seminars to law enforcement agencies all over the country and has advised police executives in England, Israel, and Australia. His progeny interrogate suspects at most Bay Area law enforcement agencies, including the SFPD.
As I spent several weeks in Ekman's lying world -- attending a 40-hour police interrogation class taught by an Ekman disciple; reading books and articles about his work; chatting with a dozen cops trained in his method; and interviewing and reinterviewing Ekman and his academic peers -- I came to realize that the trick to unveiling untruth is one every serious journalist knows. It takes a deceptive person to catch a liar.
Like the cop, the lawyer, the diplomat -- and everyone else who knows how to get a dissembler to give up the goods -- journalists are con men. They charm, seduce, and then betray their sources with the dedication of smooth-talking lounge lizards. And if they succeed, journalists reach the reporterly equivalent of a climax, that Linda Tripp moment when the new confidant starts to say things he or she really oughtn't, and lets loose words to be fashioned by the writer into a tale of human failing.
While it didn't seem so at the outset -- I first learned about Dr. Ekman from a Scientific American review of the new Darwin book -- the more I spoke to him and his law-entranceway disciples, the more it seemed he might be ripe for journalistic seduction and betrayal.
First, Ekman is a rather aggressive self-promoter. His answering machine includes a special line for journalists. He's been in dozens of newspaper and magazine articles, and appears regularly on television. He is the expert newswriters call for quotes about possible high-profile liars: Thomas/Hill; Poindexter/North; Clinton ... you get the idea.
And there are fewer things more delightful for a journalist than pulling one over on a self-promoter.
What's more, Ekman is a practitioner of one of the most dubious sub-genres of an already-suspect field: the Psychology of Deception. It's a field where professors at Brandeis University and Claremont Graduate School spend years proving ground-breaking theories such as these: People lie to avoid punishment; liars tend to act nervous.
Finally, there's what would appear to be Ekman's greatest vulnerability, at least from a journalistic perspective: He's a well-mannered academic claiming influence in a bare-knuckled world. "Kinder and gentler police interrogations?" I asked myself. This I had to see.
So I did what I always do in cases like these: I went through a process that journalists consider ordinary source cultivation, but most laymen would probably judge to be a bare-faced con. I deluged Ekman with e-mails praising his work, eulogizing Darwin, and expressing my intention to lionize them both. I sent him a pile of lengthy SF Weekly articles I had written about the nature of scientific revolutions and America's waning appreciation of scientific discovery. I committed to spend at least a month immersing myself in his ideas.
In short, I sucked up.
And pay dirt came my way, thick and fast.
Ekman introduced me to J.J. Newberry, a recently retired agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Newberry, a gregarious man who teaches interrogation classes at Los Medanos College in Pittsburgh, hopes to spin his association with Ekman into a worldwide chain of institutes teaching "Analytic Interviewing." After sipping coffee with me for an hour in the lobby of the Concord Sheraton, Newberry, without provocation, invited me to attend a weeklong interrogation class. Ekman had suggested to him that the resulting publicity might earn research grants, he later revealed.
"Another easy mark," I thought. And I set about my work. I sent J.J. letters, articles. I bought him dinner. We had drinks. The stage seemed set.
Dr. Paul Ekman's study looks just as one would want the work space of a serious academic to appear. There are so many books, folders, and loose articles bulging from the shelves that the room seems on the verge of chaos. In the spaces not claimed by literature, there are photographs of contorted male and female faces -- grimaces of pain, stares of rage, gasps of alarm. These faces are illustrations from the original version of Charles Darwin's Expressions, the founding text for a branch of science that studies the possibility of a hard-wired connection between our emotions and our facial muscles.
The photographs -- and the feelings they connote -- are at the root of Ekman's work with police officers. By advancing and refining Darwin's theory -- which says that one can read the hearts of animals and men through their faces -- Ekman has taught law enforcement officers to give special attention to the subtle secrets present in every visage.
According to Darwin, the common origins of all species means that humans share with the lower animals unconscious links between feelings and facial expressions. A dog bares its teeth when angry. A human does the same (in which case it's called a grimace or a sneer). An injured beast writhes in pain; humans "closely compress" their mouths, clench their teeth, the eyes "stare wildly as in horrified astonishment, or the brows are heavily contracted. Perspiration bathes the body, and drops trickle down the face," Darwin writes.
The emotions, and their corresponding facial expressions, are, Darwin asserts, the result of distinct neural systems that have helped us survive, and were therefore passed down to the present through natural selection. A sufficiently fierce glare can prevent an unfortunate (and possibly lethal) fight, among either dogs or higher animals. And Ekman has a logical extension of the theory: Because they emanate from circuits of our nervous system that were formed deep in pre-history, certain expressions -- those depicting happiness, sadness, alarm, and anger -- are universal among peoples.
Ekman says he didn't believe Darwin's theories on emotion-expression links when he first became a psychologist during the 1950s. Cultural relativism was the order of the day, and Margaret Mead's Coming of Age in Somoa had recently become the greatest-selling academic work of all time. Many social scientists and psychologists took it as revealed truth that nurture was more important than nature in explaining most complex human behavior.
But Ekman put his doubt to the test, examining people's facial expressions in Argentina, China, Estonia, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Turkey, and Papua New Guinea. The result: These facial expressions are the same the world over, just as Darwin's work had predicted. Ekman would take his findings about the universal link between emotions and facial expressions and use it to study one of the most emotional of human undertakings: telling lies.
The study began when therapists that Ekman was teaching told him they needed a reliable way to tell whether an emotionally distraught person was considering suicide. Often, suicidal patients would claim to be well, hoping they would be freed from psychiatric institutions -- and, therefore, free to kill themselves.
Ekman and his students studied a film made of a suicidal patient named Mary, who appeared to be recovering her spirits. In an interview Ekman filmed, Mary told her doctor how much better she felt, and asked for a weekend pass. Before she received the pass, Mary admitted she had lied.
Upon reviewing the film, Ekman discovered that Mary's face twitched into a fleeting expression of despair just as her doctor asked about her plans for the future. This momentary facial expression was a potential master key to unlocking people's lies, Ekman was to later conclude. These micro-expressions were the initial manifestations of an involuntary nervous response. Wily humans do better than lower animals in covering the evidence of their lies. Humans smile, they paint on a poker face, they feign an emotion that is not their own. But in the case of high-stakes lies, Ekman determined, Darwin's hard-wiring gets the better of them.
To prove his hunch, Ekman devised a series of experiments in which college students could earn $50 if they successfully lied. Reviewing films of these videotapes, Ekman discovered more micro-expressions. True emotions leaked through in the form of furrowed brows, strained necks, or false smiles. Liars sometimes shrugged their shoulders, paused too long, blinked; or had expressions that emerged unevenly across their faces. None of these perturbations are in and of themselves signs of lying, Ekman explains. They are merely signs of emotion flitting across the face. The trick to perceiving a lie is discovering when a person's emotions do not match what is being said.
To discover what those emotions mean, you have to get to know the bearer: You learn how he thinks and feels; discover his fears and wants. You must get to know him as if you were his closest friend.
Ekman's findings had obvious applications to police work, in which officers are charged with tripping up liars on a daily basis. Several years ago Ekman began advising officers at the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, the Oakland Police Department, and elsewhere. But for Ekman's method to work among criminals, something extra was required. Ekman's telltale expressions are most detectable on a blank slate: a face that has been blanched of anxiety, fear, mistrust, or nervousness. The ideal canvas: the face of a person who has just been seduced.
So the police interviewer must become a confidence man, a purveyor of deceit nearly as conniving as his subject. He convinces the vile rapist to imagine himself among friends; the murderous fiend to believe that his sins are mild; the embezzler to think he finally has a confidant.
The good police interviewer is also an actor, a salesman, a therapist, and a friend. The best ones are people you like the moment you meet them. They're quick with a handshake and a smile, tossing off a friendly confidence, and effortlessly lending an understanding ear. They're the type of people you like, and you'd like to earn their admiration in return. They're the kind of individuals you just want to talk to. And they're the sort of people whose job it may be to see that you're locked away for life.
So the interviewer's task is, first and foremost, to put the subject at ease: with a handshake, a brush on the arm; or talk of sports, family, or shared childhood memories.
"You have to adapt to the person. You get the person to believe, and to feel, that they're connected, that they have a common goal with you," says Flint. "Your goal is to make them want to deliver information."
To learn more about these techniques, and to study how the Ekman method is used by police, I sign up for a weeklong course sponsored by Los Medanos College, an Antioch junior college that offers mid-career training for law enforcement officers. Upon meeting J.J. Newberry, our instructor for the week, I am immediately impressed with the link between interviewing talent and having an ingratiating personality: I like the man right away.
As he banters with me and my law-enforcement classmates, Newberry seems a natural. He's quick with a joke or a flattering comment. He's an absorbing lecturer, inadvertently sprinkling his banter with Norm Crosby-esque slips of the tongue -- "cooperating evidence," "a flirtive movement of the eye," and "you have a hinkling that they've been truthful." I've had drinks, lunch, dinner, and more drinks with J.J., and I enjoy his company. He's a man who loves to tell stories about his career as an ATF agent, yet he's oddly humble about it. He's witty, insightful, and good at what he does. I glow at the flattery he offers me during the time we've spent together. I like the idea that he might like me.
Despite the camaraderie, we both understand the game. He'd like me to write a favorable story about his brand of police interrogation. I'd like him to help me obtain information for a newspaper article. Getting on each other's good side comes with the territory.
"Why do murderers confess knowing they will go to the gas chamber?" Newberry asks. "For a fleeting moment, they want to ease the pain of lying. For a moment, they want to relieve the tension. At moments like these, who are you going to tell? That's right. Your best friend."
The craft of seduction and betrayal Newberry teaches in his class is at once subtle and blunt. One of the classroom texts is How to Make a Man Fall in Love With You, a self-help manual for lovelorn women. Newberry instructs us to gain the trust of a subject, and then to determine what he is like when relaxed and telling the truth. The next step is to make him lie. Ask him to tell his story, then tell it backward, then tell it frame by frame, all the while looking at his face, shoulders -- or any other instrument of Darwinist emotional expression -- for the true story. Then, exploiting the relationship you have forged in the interview room, you pressure the subject to tell you the truth.
"That's a law enforcement officer's most important job: to tell the truth," Newberry says.
We learned that the good interviewer doesn't interrupt when a subject is talking. He doesn't finish the subject's sentences; he listens to what the subject is saying rather than planning which question he is going to ask next. He keeps an open mind -- particularly to the possibility that a person may not be lying.
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.
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.
"J.J. and I flew to Chicago to interview Darryl Handy. That was the first major break in the case," recalls ATF agent Al Mabanag, of the bureau's Oakland office. "This was going to be a key interview. This guy was present when these acts were committed. The thing I recall most was that he was tense and nervous, and a good portion of that was because he was in custody in the Cook County Jail.
"J.J. made him feel at ease. He gave him a firm handshake, grabbed his elbow, asking him if he was OK. He asked how they were treating him. He asked if there was anything we could do for him. J.J. had a very laid-back approach. ... We did a little chatting on the side, and then J.J. approached him with what we were after. We just let the guy talk. We'd ask him questions just to keep him on topic."
Handy lied to minimize his role in Johnson's killings; supervising agent and ardent Ekman disciple J.J. Newberry could tell that by reading Handy's expressions. Further investigation showed he had been, alternately, a gunman, a driver, and who-knows-what-else during One-Eye's East Bay crime spree. But Handy didn't lie about everything. During the course of repeated interviews, Handy revealed the location of spent casings, guns, hideouts, and accomplices, all of which allowed the agents to assemble the pieces of what had seemed a hopeless case.
Marvin Johnson was not one to take betrayal lightly. He gave the order from jail to firebomb the home of Handy's sister. He gave more orders to kill, harass, and terrify a shopping list of witnesses and their families.
The agents spied on Johnson in jail. His jail-house messenger, it turned out, was a local video-store owner who had been visiting Johnson with odd frequency.
Agents allowed this courier to deliver one last message before arresting him at the jailhouse, so that Johnson could not learn that his line to the outside world had been cut. Then they brought the courier to the interview room. He had to turn informant fast -- before Johnson got wise -- or face 20 years in prison. It was Newberry and Mabanag's job to flip him.
At first, the courier lied about his role.
"We did everything I showed you in the class," Newberry recalls. "He was a baseball player. I told him I remembered when he played, and what a great life it must have been playing pro ball. Then we talked about how he could have possibly gotten himself into this mess. He related how he got involved with One-Eyed Marvin; how he wanted to get back into baseball. I told him, 'You've got to make up your mind what side of the line you're going to go on.' I touched him on the shoulder. He was a decent man, and I played to his decency. He was more worried about his wife than anything, and we played that up. I really liked the guy, so it did not take long to establish a relationship with him."
Mabanag was in and out of the interviewing room -- getting more information from prison deputies, checking information obtained during the interview with reports -- so he didn't see everything that went on, and his memory of the interview isn't as complete as Newberry's would be.
That said, as is the case with any two witnesses' recollections, Mabanag remembers things slightly differently than his partner.
"When you do interviews, sometimes a guy will just not like you. No matter what you do, he will not confess and tell the truth. [The courier] kept being deceptive," Mabanag recalls. The two agents decided to take a break, regroup, then return for more interviewing, and they called another agent to serve as a security guard with the courier while Mabanag and Newberry were out of the room.
"It seems like he took a liking to the agent. I guess he felt more comfortable with this agent being there, and based on the agent's recommendation, this guy saw the light at the end of the tunnel. He thought it would be better if he cooperated," Mabanag recalls.
The courier's cooperation made the case, former U.S. Attorney Eric Havian recalls; the newly responsive witness phoned Johnson's main hit man, setting him up for arrest. The courier also showed officers hand-written murder instructions that Johnson had passed from jail. His cooperation de-fanged Johnson, convincing other witnesses to the drug dealer's crimes that it was safe to talk, and Johnson was convicted of conspiracy to run a criminal enterprise.
Modern police interviewing had saved the day.
The hideous criminal was off the streets.
The ex-ballplayer he had roped in could go back to his wife.
Witnesses to Johnson's crimes could rest at night.
But the story didn't seem complete, really.
Did the analytic interviewing methods espoused by Newberry and Ekman flip the courier? Or did a friendly agent on security- guard duty do it by happenstance?
Perhaps the answer lay with the courier himself (who is not being named in this article at the request of law enforcement authorities, who still fear for his safety). "He'd remember those hours in the interviewing room," I thought. I called directory assistance and dialed the first of two numbers the operator gave me. A woman answered the phone, who said the man who had been the courier wasn't in town, but that she might be able to reach him through another relative.
I knew that the last thing the courier wanted to do was re-live the One-Eye Johnson case. So I dissembled, as I sometimes do, in an effort to get at the truth.
Newberry had told me the courier cherished memories of his baseball days, so I said, "I beg your pardon, I may be making a mistake, and I wanted to make sure: Is this the home of the same [name deleted] who played major-league baseball and then spent several years in the Mexican leagues?"
"Yes, it certainly is," the woman exuded. "She, and the courier, are mine," I thought.
I wasn't lying -- liars usually don't. I never directly said that I was mainly interested in the courier's baseball career. I just insinuated as much. I did what untruthful people normally do: I misled; I deceived.
Appeal to their vanity; seduce and betray; the truth is your only master. This is the magazine journalist's credo.
Just the same, I never followed up on the call. The thrill of the chase deadens when your efforts stand to do more harm than good. There comes a time in the interrogation room, we learned during J.J.'s class, that you should just back off.
The day before my deadline for this story, I decided to pay a visit to Lt. Henry Hunter, chief polygraphist of the San Francisco Police Department. I wanted to see a top-notch interviewer in action, and Hunter, as it turns out, is a fan of Ekman. Hunter, a fiftysomething, mildly rotund man, would certainly qualify as a natural interviewer. He radiates the ingratiating excitement of a man who loves what he does. He is inscrutably nonjudgmental during conversation. He is generous with his time, though it's evident he's a busy man.
He studied psychology in college, and went on to take special training in polygraphy. He's been through Flint's classes and studied the work of all the top experts on lying. But he thinks success in interviewing and interrogation is largely a question of natural talent.
"There are guys here who have never been to a school who get guys to confess left and right. They're listeners, and they're accepting. That's the key," he says.
He showed me into the SFPD polygraph room, which is about the size of a walk-in closet and is equipped with two chairs. One has curved armrests, so the necessary sensors can be easily and securely affixed to the subjects' arms. The other is an interviewing chair, which is where the subject sits during the ordinary interviewing and interrogation that precedes and follows the polygraph test. In the observation room next door, Hunter pops a tape into a videocassette recorder, and a TV soon shows a man seated in a chair, legs spread, back slumped, face completely flaccid, with a cigarette drooping listlessly from the left side of his mouth.
"If you ever see a guy smoke in my interrogating room, he's just confessed," Hunter explains.
The tape is rewound and the interview starts. Lee appears relaxed, if dejected, as Hunter asks a series of meaningless, bureaucratic-sounding questions -- address, age, full name, nicknames -- designed to get him used to the idea of chatting with Hunter, and give Hunter an idea what Lee is like when he's talking about things that don't bother him.
"I'll sometimes ask them what they like to do in their spare time," says Hunter. "These are rapport-building questions."
The conversation continues, changing in tone slightly as Hunter moves them both into the realm of the killing. A neighborhood bully had died of gunshot wounds outside of Lee's door not long after he had threatened to kill Lee. Hunter explains how he's reading Lee's body language, using the signals he's giving off.
As I watch the two men on the tiny Sony video screen, I am pulled in as if by a jazz performance. Hunter prods gently, yet insistently to extract Lee's version of events. Hunter moves his body closer, his voice and words forming contours of empathy, compassion, and an odd sort of human grace. We fast-forward past the polygraph -- a series of brief questions followed by similarly matter-of-fact answers -- to the final interrogation phase.
It becomes evident during the interrogation that Hunter often uses the technical-looking lie detector more as an interviewing tool than a potential piece of evidence. By telling the suspect he has incriminated himself during the test, Hunter is able to provoke the sort of anxiety that often produces confessions. Hunter leaves the interrogating room on the pretense of examining the polygraph results; the tape skips, then Hunter returns after what Lee's face seems to describe as a painfully long time.
Hunter says it's important to give them time to think.
"Our polygraph results indicate that you are the man who committed the crime," Hunter says on the videotape. Then the inquisitor begins describing his own version of what happened at Lee's doorstep: Lee thought he was shooting the man in self-defense.
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.