Lies and details

justiceIs anyone else following the Baden-Clay murder trial? An apparently loving husband and family man murdering his depressed wife? It is unimaginable and yet, here he is on trial, his future in the hands of 12 strangers. I’m just following it through newspapers and TV like everyone else – I have no extra information. But I think it offers some interesting insights into the way police go about constructing a case.

‘The devil is in the detail’ or so the saying goes, and I believe this is true here. Every incident is made up of masses of details. When people start lying, they generally come up with a lie that applies to one particular part or aspect of the story. They rarely conjure up the entire story in their mind, from start to finish. Police are trained to nail a suspect down to little details in all aspects of the incident, then go about trying to verify or disprove their version through these details.

The scratches on Baden-Clay’s cheek are an excellent example of this. They are very obvious – he could never hide them so he had to be able to explain them. He has claimed that he cut himself shaving because his razor was blunt. Possible? Yes. But then you start looking at the detail. Show me your razor? Is it blunt? Is there blood on it? Is there a tissue with your blood on it in the bin? Why did you continue to scrape away at your face with a blunt razor after you had cut yourself the first time? Is there anything else that backs up or supports this story? If the details don’t fit, not only is the lie itself exposed but the suspect’s integrity has been compromised. If he lied about that, what else has he lied about? Why did he choose to lie?

If a story is true, a person will be able to explain each small part, and it will match up with other details without any effort, because that was the way it happened. In the course of a police interview, a liar will often say things that contradict each other, because they have not thought through the whole story. Sometimes they have forgotten what they initially said, sometimes they change details because they think they’ve come up with a better story. This happens only when they are making it up as they go along. The details are not cemented in their mind as they would be in reality. Then in order to try and explain a small lie, they often weave a bigger or more implausible lie. “I can’t remember” is much more plausible than false details. It takes a skilled storyteller with an excellent memory to construct a watertight lie where all of the details line up when checked.

As in the Baden-Clay case – “I went to bed at about 10pm,” he says. But then his phone was shown to have been plugged in at his bedside table at 1.48am. More explaining, more detail, more possibility for lies to be exposed.

The same principles can also be applied to the Oscar ‘Blade Runner’ Pistorius case in South Africa. This one is murkier – he has admitted to pulling the trigger. It is more of a psychological case than a circumstantial one such as Baden-Clay. But the interview principles remain the same. What happened? Did you have your prosthetic legs on or not? How many times did you fire? What did you see? What did you hear? Details like these may confirm his innocence or guilt.

The Baden-Clay case is also an interesting study in how the judicial system works. Every member of the jury must believe ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ that Baden-Clay is guilty. Otherwise, they must declare him innocent. If one person on the jury thinks just maybe he didn’t do it, then they will let him walk free. That’s how our system works. Is it fair? You never know which way it might go with a jury. That is why the selection of juries is so crucial, with the defence and prosecution both trying to get jury members who will be sympathetic to their client. In South Africa, there are no juries – Pistorius’s fate will be decided by one Judge assisted by two assessors. Is this fair?

Also interesting to see the jury has been offered a third ‘softer’ option. If Baden-Clay is found innocent of murder, the jury can still consider finding him guilty of manslaughter – murder without intent. It is a huge burden for twelve ordinary citizens to convict someone of murder. So how about – he did it, but didn’t mean it?

I follow both cases with interest.