In Part I, we discussed some Department of Justice data on false allegations that I stumbled across at Fort Carson. In Part II, I took at a look at deception and some of the verbal cues that we use to analyze accusations. In this blog, I'll briefly look at nonverbal deception. In the last part, we'll talk about false confessions.
The reason we have to discuss nonverbal deception is because most false allegations are the result of prepared lies. In other words, the accuser has had ample opportunity to formulate the lie. Well-prepared lies can be difficult to dissect.
There are, however, often moments in trial when facial expressions tell more of a story than the witness. In December, I represented a major who was accused of abusive sexual contact. The alleged victim attempted to extort him for $18,000. If he didn't pay her, she threatened to make an allegation of sexual assault. We ran some background searches and discovered that she had purchased a new car around the time of the extortion. Imagine the look of surprise on her face when we cross-examined her. She had no idea we knew. We won the case. That micro-expression of surprise may have been the reason why.
One of the leading researchers on nonverbal deception is Paul Ekman. Along with his team, the developed a system for analyzing spontaneous expressions. He has published several books.
Facial expressions can be hard to suppress. When people are lying, they are often trying hardest to regulate their facial expressions rather than their body movements. Some people are good at masking their expressions. Generally, it is very difficult to simulate spontaneous facial expressions.
As a lawyer cross-examining or interviewing witnesses, however, I want to pay careful attention to startle responses. In other words, the element of surprise is powerful as a questioner. I'm watching very closely whether they are trying to voluntarily control their facial expressions.
The muscles around the eyes are particular difficult to control. Brow raises, squinting, lip stretches, neck muscle activity, and eyes closing are all micro-expressions we want to pay attention to. The eyes may very well be most important. The obicularis oculi is the muscle that tightens the muscles around the eyelids and skin. It is particularly difficult to control during a startle response.
In circumstances where the witness may be experiencing embarrassment, amusement, or shame we are looking for gaze aversion, shifty eyes, and speech disturbances. Downward leaning posture generally.
Smiles are particularly important to watch. Ekman did a fairly famous study where they showed nurses two films - a pleasant film and a film showing burn victims and amputees. The nurses were asked questions about the films. They were told to mask their feelings about the disturbing video.
When the nurses were being truthful about the pleasant video, slow-motion cameras noted natural movements of the obicularis oculi. In other words, genuine smiles had symmetrical tightening of the skin around both eyes. When subject attempted to conceal their emotions, you could still detect traces of the natural emotion.
In that regard, throughout a trial or witness interview we want to be hyper vigilant to a witness's micro-expressions.