O.J.'s profit motive

Is Simpson trying to clear his conscience? Forget it, say interrogation experts. His veiled confession fulfills a baser need.


Alex Koppelman
November 18, 2006 6:24PM (UTC)

As if the long, sordid story of the O.J. Simpson trial wasn't enough, there's a new chapter: Eleven years after his acquittal, Simpson will reportedly offer -- in a new book and a two-part Fox TV special -- a hypothetical account of how he would have committed the murders if, that is, he had done the deed.

Joseph Buckley, president of John E. Reid and Associates, the firm that teaches the influential "Reid Technique" of interrogation to law enforcement agencies across the country, says that this sort of hypothetical scenario, especially one so freely given, would not come from an innocent man.

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"Somebody who says, 'Well, I didn't do it, but if I did do it, here's how I would have' -- you very rarely see that from a truthfully innocent person," Buckley says. "You see that much more often with guilty people; it's kind of a way for them to perhaps release some of the guilt associated with the crime and yet not take full responsibility, or any actual responsibility."

In a statement given to the New York Post, Judith Regan, who heads the publishing house responsible for Simpson's book and will interview him Nov. 27 and 29 on Fox, strikes a similar note.

"I have not spent a lifetime in the study of deception detection," she writes, "but ex-CIA specialist Phil Houston has. 'When killers confess,' he told me, 'the way they often do it is by creating a hypothetical' -- and then they spill their guts.

"For many of them, it is the only way to tell the truth."

There are few, if any, legal risks for Simpson. Because of the constitutional protections against double jeopardy -- being tried twice for the same crime -- he can not face criminal charges for the murders. Additionally, Simpson has already been the target of a wrongful death lawsuit in which he was found liable; he has, so far, avoided paying anything but a minimal portion of the $33 million judgment against him in that case.

According to Saul Kassin, a professor of psychology at Williams College, who co-wrote the book "Confessions in the Courtroom," cost-benefit analysis nearly always goes into the decision of whether or not to confess. In Simpson's case, the freedom from legal risk makes his situation unique.

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"The psychology of O.J. may be the psychology of nothing but O.J.," Kassin says. "From a psychological standpoint, I can't think of any clearer instance in which somebody has -- at least on the face of it -- everything to gain and nothing to lose. I'm not sure I can even come up with another example, where a true voluntary confession brings a financial gain to a criminal without putting them at risk."

Another way some criminals may attempt to avoid taking full responsibility is to admit -- as they or their stories break down under interrogation -- to elements of a crime but not to actual culpability. For instance, they could say they were indeed at the scene but did not take part. It appears that Simpson may be doing something similar; the New York Daily News has reported that he will admit to being at the scene with "Charlie," an accomplice, who handed Simpson the bloody knife after the murders.

William Morrissette, a former CIA forensic investigator who specializes in the science of interrogation and now runs Intuition, a company that trains law enforcement in forensic interrogation techniques, says some criminals "rationalize" their crimes in order to alleviate their conscience.

"Guilt can become a physical thing," Morrissette says. "It can actually make you sick. So this rationalization, saying, 'Well, I did this, but it was because of...' is a way of letting some of that guilt out without admitting culpability. ... We [as interrogators] try to encourage that rationalization, to help them along in that."

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Kassin points out that Simpson is not under interrogation, and he believes this situation is different, partially because of that.

"You know, if this just looked like a guy who needed to get this off his chest, I'd say sure, that's possible," he says. "But it looks like a guy who has some tangible benefit to gain; I'm more likely to believe he's doing this for personal gain than to get it off his chest, as somebody of conscience might have."

Morrissette agrees, contrasting the Simpson case with that of Michael Skakel, the Kennedy cousin who was convicted of killing his neighbor, Martha Moxley, years after the crime was committed -- partially because some years later he confessed the crime to classmates at a private school for teenage substance abusers. That, Morrisette says, was evidence of guilt driving a criminal to confess, but he doesn't believe that's the case with Simpson.

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"A genuine confession coming out of guilt," Morrissette says, "you don't write a tabloid book to do that."

Richard Leo, an associate professor of law at the University of San Francisco, agrees, and thinks there may be an additional factor in play: Simpson's own ego, and desire to be the focus of the public's attention.

"There may be some psychiatric need here," Leo says. "Yes, he may be in the spotlight, may have always been in the spotlight, but he may need more, and this is a way for him to get it."

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Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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