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Police Interrogation and American Justice Paperback – August 24, 2009

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Editorial Reviews


The 'third degree' is long gone. But as Richard Leo shows, trickery, manipulation, and deceit are still basic tools of police interrogation of suspects. His unsettling and brilliant book gives a bird's-eye view of systematic coercion that undermines basic rights at the entrance to the legal system. (Elizabeth Loftus, author of Eyewitness Testimony)

This is the best book on police interrogation I have ever read-- and I have been reading about the subject (and writing about it) for 50 years. The long chapter on the 'third degree' is fascinating-- and it reveals that a century ago the city police of America were using some of the same harsh interrogation techniques that the CIA used after 9/11. (Yale Kamisar, University of San Diego)

A gripping indictment of what goes on behind the closed doors of police interrogation rooms. From psychological manipulation, to threats of harm and promises of leniency, to lengthy incommunicado questioning, all the way to outright brutality...Leo's book is a powerful contribution to criminal justice public policy...Police Interrogation and American Justice causes one to marvel at the extent to which the parties in the justice system have been complicit in enabling lawless police to effect convictions of suspects by coercing their confessions. Leo offers suggestions for reform, which are fair and reasonable in a country that has the highest incarceration rate in the world. (Heidi Boghosian Federal Lawyer 2008-09-01)

It is the best book on this subject. Richard Leo uses data not ordinarily available. He brilliantly documents the everydayness of police dialogue with suspects in chapters discussing "professionalizing the police" and "the third degree in America" as well as through analysis of relentlessly systematic police use of deceit, manipulation, lying and disguised coercion...The result is both convincing and brilliant...This is an excellent book. Read it. Use it. Such books are exceedingly rare. (Ephraim Margolin The Champion 2008-09-01)

[A] brilliant analysis of police interrogations. In this rich tome, [Leo] analyzes police interrogations in the broad context of the adversarial system of American criminal justice. He presents a thorough look at interrogations as a truth-seeking tool as well as a manipulative means to coerce suspects to say what they should not say, and do not necessarily want to say. Leo's approach of using case studies to supplement his scholarly arguments makes this an interesting and valuable read for anyone interested in police work...The result is a well-organized, well-written social scientific account of police interrogations...His book is an important contribution to the workings of the police in America. (Geoffrey P. Alpert Contemporary Sociology 2008-09-01)

Law professor Leo, one of the most prolific and knowledgeable scholars on police investigations, offers a book both eye-opening and important. (B. J. Goetz Choice 2009-02-01)

About the Author

Richard A. Leo is Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press (September 30, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674035313
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674035317
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 6.1 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,049,782 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

24 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Karen Franklin on February 29, 2008
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Richard Leo brilliantly analyzes the function of police interrogations within the larger adversarial system of U.S. criminal justice. Whereas interrogations are presented as a neutral tool for truth-seeking, Leo shows how in reality police function as an unmonitored and unchecked arm of the prosecution, targeting both guilty and innocent suspects alike in a ruthless and fraudulent game of psychological manipulation in which they hold all the cards. Leo uses a historical lens to show how today's psychologically coercive techniques evolved from the widespread "third-degree" practices outlawed in the 1930s. Whereas the third-degree was visibly vicious and lawless, modern interrogators hide behind a façade of science and professionalism that allows them to wield enormous unchecked power and influence over criminal justice outcomes.

Popular belief in the "myth of the psychological interrogation" - that only the guilty confess and that confession statements are reliable - prevents judges and jurors from understanding is that the extreme and sophisticated psychological coercion tactics wielded in some interrogations, especially in serious or high-profile cases, can make almost anyone feel helpless enough to falsely confess, Leo argues. He explains how the final product is jointly scripted by the police and the hapless suspect into such a compelling narrative that a fair trial is rendered impossible.

One of the book's many strengths is its focus on topics that are rarely studied in much depth, such as this topic of how the postadmission narrative is constructed. Another rarely highlighted topic is the corrupting effect of systematic police deception in reports and court testimony about what goes on in the interrogation room.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By GREGORY DECLUE on October 3, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I've been reading Richard Leo's articles and book chapters for years, and I was looking forward to this book to see how he put it all together. I expected a great book, but this is much better than I expected.

The book is, as I expected, essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how interrogations and confessions work. But beyond my expectations, the book provides a mind-expanding view of how the American justice system really works. In many criminal cases, everything that happens after what occurs in the interrogation room is relegated to formalities.

This is must reading for anyone involved in the criminal justice system, including police, courts, corrections, and more.
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Format: Hardcover
'Police Interrogation and American Justice' is a scholarly look at the history of police confessions in America. One reference the author mentions quite often in this book is the Wickersham Commission Report. Every student, professional, author and researcher of criminal justice issues needs to see the report (which comprises several phone-book sized volumes) or a concise summary, if the actual report isn't available.

With this book, author Richard A. Leo provides an invaluable reference for those with a need to understand police interrogation and confessions in a historical sense.

The writing style is definitely intended for criminal justice professionals and students in senior-level college courses. Readers looking for a basic understanding of police interrogation and confessions won't find what they're looking for in this book.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Cwn_Annwn on January 8, 2010
Format: Paperback
Police Interrogation and American Justice is partially a history of American police interrogation, but mainly goes over the various tactics they use to try to get people to tell on themselves. This would be of interest to people with an interest in how police operate, or people interested in the psychological tactics they use during interrogation. The whole purpose of the interrogation is for them to to somehow persuade you that its in your best interest to confess to a crime no matter how reversed the reality of the situation is. I also found it funny how they use the polygraph even though it is completely useless in showing a persons guilt or innocence. However after a suspect has taken the lie detector they ALWAYS say that it shows you are lying regardless of the actual results. People just don't get it that no matter what the circumstances it is NEVER in your best interests to say ANYTHING to police if you are the target of a criminal investigation. Remember these five words, "I have nothing to say" and leave it at that no matter what they come at you with. They tell you themselves everything you say can and will be used against you so what more do you need to know.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Al on September 25, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I read this book after seeing a news story about a man who confessed to a crime and spent 7 years in prison before being exonerated by DNA (and then succesfully suing for a multi-million dollar settlement). I wanted to know more about why someone would confess to something he hadn't done and why the U.S. criminal justice system would allow it to happen when there was virtually no hard evidence. This book answered my questions and I feel that I learned a lot about the motivations of the police and the accused during an interrogation that leads to a confession.

Some of the cases the author cites to demonstrate his conclusions are stomach churning in their injustice to the accused. Families blown apart and innocent lives ruined because of the intensity of the interrogations and the police belief in their own infallability at determining the truth. The cases of the Spokane police deputy and the U.S. Marshalls son are alarming reminders that it doesn't matter who you are, a scrap of circumstancial evidence or a clearly false accusation and you too can find yourself in a police interrogation room.

The author tends towards writing in an academic form. It's definitely readable, but some might find it a bit dry. He does provide plenty of references and I found it enlightening to read through them.

My only real complaint is that the author repeats some of his points over and over again throughout the book. After a while I started suspecting that the repeated points were filler to make the book longer or the chapters were academic papers written by the author and edited into book form.
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