Questioning an Eyewitness: To Lead or Not to Lead?



As promised, let’s continue with false or misleading eyewitness testimony, and how writers can use interview techniques to our advantage. Today, we’ll change it up a bit by focusing on how to question an eyewitness. More importantly, how not to.


Questioning a Witness

The context in which a question is asked becomes an important factor. A witness, however innocent, may try to answer the investigator’s questions by telling him/her what s/he wants to hear, not to confuse the investigation but because it’s human nature to want to help. Add a leading or suggestive question on top of that mindset, and most of what the investigator receives will be unreliable information. Incidentally, children and mentally challenged individuals, including folks with borderline IQ’s, are the most easily influenced, because they tend to want to please adults. 

Leading or Suggestive Questions

Leading questions suggest the response is expected and/or implies information the witness has no prior knowledge of. Let’s say the investigator asks, “How hard did the robber punch the victim?” Most witnesses will try to fill in the blanks, even if they never actually witnessed physical contact between the victim and suspect. This results in guesswork on the part of the eyewitness. Therefore, it’s imperative that the investigator doesn’t inadvertently suggest an answer.

Suggestibility is defined as: “The act or process of impressing something — an idea, attitude, or desired result — on the mind of another.”

With that in mind, the detective should keep the testimony as uncontaminated as possible. Part of the problem is, it’s difficult for eyewitnesses to distinguish between information they saw during the event from information they heard from other witnesses, after the event—also called “post-event information.”

In one study, Loftus and Palmer investigated the ability of post-event information to influence the eyewitness testimony. Participants were shown a video of a motor vehicle accident. Afterward, researchers asked several questions with a variety of phrasings. In the spirit of brevity, I’ll only mention two.

“How fast were the cars going when they smashed into each other?”

“How fast were the cars going when they bumped into each other?”

The participants who were asked the first question, reported high rates of speed and broken headlights, even though broken glass wasn’t shown in the video. The second group reported lesser speeds with very little damage to either vehicle. It’s easy to see why. Verbs matter, but we knew that already, didn’t we? 🙂

Open Questions

Open questions seek an open-ended response from eyewitnesses. They also don’t limit the scope or direct the witness to answer in a certain way. “What happened?” Or, “What did you see?” are both examples of open questions.

With open questions the detective is more likely to get a true recounting of events. A study showed responses to open questions were three-to-four times longer and three times richer in relevant details.


Facilitators are non-suggestive verbal or non-verbal responses that encourage the eyewitness to continue recalling the events. For example, “Okay.” Or, “Uh-ha.” Or, “Hmm.” Because these responses are non-leading and non-specific, they’re effective at maintaining the eyewitness’ narrative without decreasing the accuracy of their statement.

Focused Questions

Focused questions are exactly as they sound. Usually they’re open-ended so as not to taint the testimony. “Tell me what the man looked like.” As long as the eyewitness mentioned “the man” in his or her initial statement, the detective won’t risk muddying the response. A focused question is used to further support the testimony that’s already been given, which aids in garnering more useful details. However, if they’re overused by the detective, they can actually have the opposite effect, thereby limiting the accuracy of the eyewitness testimony. Especially if the witness feels obligated to provide details.

Option-Posing Questions

Generally, for details the eyewitness hasn’t described, an option-posing question involves recognition. Such as, “Was the man running or walking?” As you might have guessed, option-posing questions also limit the scope of the answer. Because of this, they may be seen as leading or suggestive. You’ll notice option-posing questions at court when attorneys are trying to coax certain answers from witnesses on the stand.

Would questioning differ with a suspect vs. witness?

It shouldn’t, unless the detective wants to skew the facts by forcing an involuntary confession. We’ll dig into the difference between voluntary and involuntary confessions next time. Why innocent people confess is a fascinating subject. In the meantime, the perfect example of real detectives asking leading and suggestive questions occurred in the interview of Brendan Dassey, featured in Part II of Making a Murderer on Netflix. If you haven’t watched the second season, take a peek. Whether or not you believe the confession was coerced is irrelevant for our purpose. Watch the interview through a writer’s eye.

In thrillers and mysteries, if we play with interview techniques, we buy time. Need to send your law enforcement character down a dead-end? Have a newly-minted detective ask leading or suggestive questions outside the lead investigator’s presence. Once the new scenario is planted in the eyewitness’ mind, they’re testimony will be of little value.

So, my beloved TKZers, what are other ways to play with interview techniques? Fire up those writer brains and lay out some scenarios. Bonus points if you can name a thriller where false or misleading eyewitness statements led to the investigation of an innocent (wo)man.



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About Sue Coletta

Sue Coletta is an award-winning crime writer and an active member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. Feedspot and named her Murder Blog as “Best 100 Crime Blogs on the Net” (2018-2021). She also blogs at the Kill Zone (Writer's Digest "101 Best Websites for Writers" 2013-2021). Sue lives with her husband and two spoiled guinea pigs in the Lakes Region of New Hampshire and writes two psychological thriller series (Tirgearr Publishing) and true crime/narrative nonfiction (Rowman & Littlefield). And recently, she appeared on the Emmy award-winning true crime series Storm of Suspicion. Learn more about Sue and her books at

17 thoughts on “Questioning an Eyewitness: To Lead or Not to Lead?

  1. In my debut book NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM, I had to do a great deal of research on police interrogations so my female detective would control the interview & shine. She had to ask questions that she (and the reader) already knew the answer to, in order to establish a lie, but the motive for a lie can be a diversion too. Family members can lie to protect someone, or push investigators in a direction because they’re desperate for justice & simply don’t know what really happened.

    As authors, we control everything that happens in an interrogation, so these scenes must have a reason/purpose that affects what comes next. Red herrings from unreliable witnesses can be fun to divert the investigation & buy time for other actions to take their course & build suspense. These scenes must move the plot forward without going on for too long (otherwise an author would slow the pace), yet be concise & meaty. For pace purposes, the author might consider initiating a scene in the middle of the questioning to cut to the emotional part when feelings are raw & everyone is tired,

    I love a good interrogation scene, especially when the reader is allowed to become the detective with their own theories, & possibly duped by effective twists planted by the author,. You’ve brought up so many good tips, Sue. This is a great focus on research for a police procedural. If an interrogation reads as amateurish, avid readers of crime fiction know it. The credibility of the author hangs in the balance.

    • You make excellent points, Jordan. Avid readers know when they’re being mislead, so if we choose to skew the interview to buy time, we better make damn sure it’s not obvious. The technique you used in NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM is perfect. Investigators need to get suspects to commit to their lie in order to nail ’em. Good for you for using the technique in your debut! How’d I miss that book? Adding it to the TBR list …

      • My debut book sold in auction & was named as one of Publishers Weekly best books in 2008 for mass market paperbacks. An incredible & unexpected honor.

  2. Funny you should mention this, Sue. In our new one The Damage Done, we have Louis and a colleague double-teaming a witness. And the other guy unwittingly leads the witness to a false conclusion, which becomes later, a huge clue.

    It can work for a writer really well in creating red herrings or plot twists. And if you have a duo doing the interview, it can create a rift in the team, which is another good way to increase tension in mid-book. It’s an overlooked tool, I think!

    • I think so, too, Kris! Love the conflict between the duo, and it happens in real life, which enhances the story as well as the author(s) credibility, as Jordan mentioned. Now I need to add The Damage Done to the TBR list. You’ve piqued my curiosity. 🙂

  3. I’d be interested in writer’s thoughts on interviewing a spouse of the murdered victim. Would a family member (in this case a grown man’s sister) be allowed to also be there during the interview? What if that sister was a lawyer (not there in her official capacity but obviously with knowledge of the law)

    • In most cases, the sister would only be allowed to sit in on the interview if she was there in a professional capacity. The golden rule is, “before you look for an outlaw, look for an in-law.” Meaning, the spouse of a victim, or another family member, is often the person who committed the crime.

  4. There’s a big difference between questioning a witness and a suspect. Interrogation is adversarial, and everyone knows it. So it’s cat and mouse. One major difference would be the placement of the body. A good interrogator wants to be as close as possible to the suspect … no table in between them, so all the body language can be observed.

    • I’m so glad you pointed out the difference between interrogation and interview. Did you see Making a Murder Part II? The detectives kept referring to their questioning as an interview, when by all accounts, it was a grueling interrogation with so many leading questions — Who shot her in the head? — that the federal court deemed the confession coerced. As it turned out, the ruling was overturned, but their mishandling of the interrogation left too many unanswered questions, including so-called facts not supported by evidence.

      • I don’t know those details, Sue. I suspect that this court ruling was overturned because cops are allowed to use deception during interrogation. The U.S. Supreme Court has so held.

        • Let me see if I have this straight. If a suspect or witness knowing lies to a LEO, that is a crime. If a law enforcement officer lies to a suspect it’s perfectly fine. Given that, the smart person (innocent or not) will give their name then invoke their Miranda right to remain silent.
          If your character is experienced in being interviewed they will know this.

  5. I’m bookmarking this great post, Sue! Based on the techniques you shared, I will review an interrogation scene in my WIP where a detective tries to turn a self-defense shooting by the main character into a homicide.

  6. Cops will tell you that the majority of suspects they question are not very smart. They practically talk themselves into a charge with an experienced cop leading the interrogation.

    We as authors may not always show the dumb criminal. It’s not as much fun and unless the writer purposefully applies a twist through a dim bulb criminal, we generally want to show the bad guy to be a mastermind pitted against a cop we’re rooting for.

    Witnesses or persons of interest (where police interview them) can be fun to manipulate for red herrings & plot twists. Even eye witnesses can be wrong.

    No matter which way a writer goes, there are many avenues to explore in the questioning part of an investigation and the author is in control of everything.

  7. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday! For Writers & Readers 11-08-2018 | The Author Chronicles

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