Chris Watts Interview: Decoding His Nonverbal Behavior
During an investigative interview, an interviewee’s nonverbal behavior will give clues as to whether or not he or she is confident in what he or she is saying. We can’t determine whether someone is lying by his/her body language, but lack of confidence may indicate that the interviewee:
- doesn’t remember.
- is not sure of what he/she remembers.
- is hiding the true story.
These are moments where we, as investigators, want to question and probe further for answers.
The recent news about Shannan Watts and her children is tragic and incomprehensible. After watching the Chris Watts interview (which occurred shortly after his wife and daughters went missing but before their bodies were recovered), I noted these red flags.
- Just 34 seconds into the interview, his mouth becomes very dry. We know this because he licks his lips. This occurs again at 1:22. There are some things we can control about body language; other things, like things we do when dry mouth occurs when we are extremely nervous, are controlled by the oldest human brain system, the reptilian brain. We can’t cover it up. Investigators, when you notice someone licking his/her lips or swallowing hard during an interview, the question should be, “What could the interviewee be nervous about?” It’s not necessarily an indication of lying (you can’t prove a lie with body language); however, it is a flag that the interviewee is unusually nervous. This is early in the interview; note whether he becomes more uncomfortable or more comfortable. Typically, in an investigative interview, an interviewee will show some cues of discomfort in the beginning, and then show more relaxed, less guarded nonverbal cues as the interview progresses.
- At around 1:26 minutes, as he spells the name of his daughter Celeste, he closes his eyes. This is a blocking behavior. It may indicate, “I can’t look at this.” It may be a response that comes from him truly knowing what happened to his daughter and not wanting to “see” it. After spelling her name, he swallows hard. Investigators: When an interviewee closes his/her eyes, note the words he/she is saying. Ask, “What does this person not want to see?” We commonly see this behavior when an employee witnesses a traumatic event, such as a serious injury or death on the job, and is retelling it. Also, note when nonverbal communication signals are thrown off in rapid succession. That is a reliable sign that you need to do follow-up questions on that part of the interview.
- After he says “Bella is four; Celeste is three,” we see that he compresses his lips. (He draws them inward and they seem to disappear.) This is sometimes a sign that an interviewee is holding something back. Investigators, when you note this behavior, gently probe for more information. The interviewee may be keeping information he/she is unsure about providing. Assure the interviewee that no detail is too small to report.
- At 1:52 minutes, he touches the side (the bulb) of his nose. Touching or covering the nose is sometimes a body language sign that the interviewee is not certain of what he is saying and is nervous about how it will be received. There are many nerve endings in the nose, so the nose tingles under stress. We may touch it without thinking about what we are doing or why we are doing it. Investigators, this may occur because the interviewee doesn’t remember, is not sure about what he/she remembers, or he/she does remember and is attempting to cover something up. Always note when an interviewee brings his/her hands to his/her face, listen carefully to the words that are being spoken at that moment. Gently probe for more information.
- At around 2:20 minutes, when he is telling the interviewer he hopes his wife is somewhere safe, it is interesting to note his facial expression doesn’t match what he is saying. If your loved one is missing and you are hoping he/she is safe, would you have a pleasant, almost smiling, expression? Investigators, when evaluating an interviewee’s statement, does his/her facial expression match what his/her words are saying? If it doesn’t match, what is the interviewee trying to hide by masking his/her expression? He goes on to talk about how he misses his children, with the same pleasant expression, and when he says, “It was tearing me apart,” he closes his eyes again, displaying blocking behavior.
- 3:53 Again, licking his lips due to dry mouth at, “I just want everybody to come home,” after talking about missing his wife and children.
- 3:55 – 4:03 Extended lip compression at “Wherever they are at, come home. That’s what I want.”
- The camera pans off him for a few seconds and, when it returns, we see he is crossing his arms. The way he is crossing his arms makes me feel he is not defending himself, but comforting himself. He looks like he is cradling himself. Occasionally, he will move his left arm, but immediately returns it to cradling. Investigators, self-comforting is a nonverbal behavior to note. Why does the interviewee need to self-comfort?
- 5:00 He states, “I just want them back,” and laughs. Again, laughter is not an emotion you would expect from a worried husband and father. Investigators, note when an interviewee’s laughter or facial expression doesn’t match his/her words.
- At around six minutes, when the interviewer asks about what the police are saying, he licks his lips again and swallows hard, indicating continued discomfort.
- At 6:48, there is extended lip compression, and he licks his lips again as he describes how police looked for surveillance cameras in the neighborhood but found nothing. This may indicate that he is concerned about the police looking for evidence.
- At around seven minutes, when the interviewer asks him what he would say to his wife if he could, he closes his eyes after he says his wife’s name (blocking behavior). He is also shaking his head “no” even though the words he is saying would align with a “yes” nod. This may indicate that he knows they are not coming back. Investigators, note when an interviewee shakes his/her head “yes” or “no.” Do the words match “yes” or “no”? These clues appear in rapid succession and should be analyzed.
After watching this short interview once, I identified these nonverbal behaviors that made me question the validity of his story. Never rely solely on the words an interviewee says. Evaluate whether his/her mood matches the words, and carefully note each body language signal that indicates what he/she just stated may need to be probed further.
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