Police Interviews versus Interrogation: ‘Fairbanks Four’ Case Illustrates Important Distinction


Last year, George Frese, Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts and Kevin Pease—also known as the Fairbanks Four—were released from prison after their convictions for the 1997 murder of teenager John Hartman were reversed. The four young men were convicted based on the false confessions of Frese and Vent, who also implicated Roberts and Pease in the crime. An opinion piece written by criminal defense attorney

Marcelle McDannel

 and published in yesterday’s edition of the

Alaska Dispatch


examines the suggestive interrogation tactics that were used to solicit Vent’s confession and illustrates why specific interrogation practices should be adopted when questioning youth.

McDannel writes:

Detective Aaron Ring was just hours into his investigation of the vicious beating of John Hartman on a street corner in downtown Fairbanks when patrol officers arrested an Alaska Native teenager. . . . Eugene Vent . . . . Detective Ring had a decision to make: whether to interview or interrogate Vent. Ring chose the latter

— a decision that would have profound implications for the investigation into the murder of John Hartman, which just resulted in the reversal of the murder convictions of Vent and the other members of the “Fairbanks Four” after 18 years of incarceration.

“Interrogation” and “interview” are not synonyms; they have very different purposes and employ very different tactics. Interviews are used in an investigation to gather information — objective facts — by asking open-ended questions and allowing the witness to supply the evidence. Police conduct interviews when they don’t yet know the answers to the questions they are asking.

Interrogations, on the other hand, are designed to extract confessions where police already have other concrete evidence connecting the suspect to the crime. Most officers are trained in specific interrogation techniques that are intended to be used against seasoned adult criminals. Because interrogations are so coercive, there’s a danger in using them, rather than an investigation, to solve a crime: They can produce false confessions that blind officers to other objective evidence.

In her editorial, McDannel includes portions of the interrogation transcript that illustrate the actual missteps that Detective Ring took when questioning Vent. His suggestive and coercive methods compounded by Vent’s young age resulted in the teen eventual confessing although he had nothing to do with the crime.

 “In a high-stress environment like an interrogation, a teen is far more likely to say anything — true or not — just to get it to stop, ignoring the long-term consequences of that decision,” says McDannel.

Read the editorial in its entirety



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