An examination of criminal defendants' verbal behavior under two types of courtroom interrrogation procedures

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


At this moment in history representatives of our government are focusing on what can be done to reduce crime, and some members of the judiciary have been asking for a consideration of research on categories of specific behavior that "criminals'' emit in an attempt to channel these persons emitting such behaviors into treatment centers. The relationship between criminality and specific criminal personality typing has thus far eluded any Procrustean approach of traditional models, and psychological and psychiatric contributions to the science of criminology are being amalgated with ideas from other disciplines. Socio-psychological models for analyzing the deviances of criminality provide an interdisciplinary approach. (Coffman, 1969).

The plan of this study was guided by the relatively specific set of theories and studies which point to an analysis of verbal behavior as an extremely good indicator of the personality of the dividual and the variables which might influence his behavioral responses .

The objective of this study was to examine the verbal behavior of criminal defendants in the courtroom under two types of interrogation procedures - that of his own attorney under direct examination and under cross examination by the prosecutor. Specifically, to investigate the behavior of the defendant indicative of the ability to cope with natural occurring stress factors.

The subjects were 72 male criminal defendants brought to trial under criminal indictments for felonies. Twenty frour of the 72 defendant subjects were indicted for larceny (12 white, 12 black); twenty four were indicted for robbery (12 white, 12 black); and twenty four for murder (12 white and 12 black).

The transcript of the testimony of the defendant during direct examination by the defense attorney and the testimony of the defendant during cross examination by the prosecutor following the sequential ordering of question-answer pairs across both types of testimony was used for the analysis. Within each transcript the line count method was utilized.

This research involved three independent variables: race (black, white), seriousness of crime on a continuum of larceny, robbery and murder, and type of examination (direct versus cross).

The results indicated the following:

  1. The defendants manifested significant differences in their verbal behavior on cross examination.

  2. Between blacks and whites, no significant differences were found in their courtroom verbal behavior.

  3. An analysis of the significant interaction of seriousness of crime and type of examination revealed that the degree to which the effect of the seriouness of the crime had substantial effect depended on whether the defendant was being interrogated by his own attorney or the prosecutor and was significant for the more serious crimes of robbery and murder.

  4. Differences in verbal behavior of the defense attorney and the prosecutor were significant on the race variable. Both attorneys exhibited longer interrogation utterances when examining white defendants.

  5. Differences in the ratio of attorney/subject exchanges revealed a decrease on the ratio of cross examination versus direct examination. An analysis of the significant interaction between seriousness of crime and cross examination by the prosecutor was operative at the levels of robbery and murder but no significant difference in the ratio of exchanges between interrogation by the defendant’s own lawyer and the prosecutor at the level of the less serious crime of larceny.

This study has provided experimental evidence that non content verbal behavior provides an indices of stress (assuming that cross examination of the defendant by the State prosecutor is stressful).

It offers support to the studies presenting evidence that the individual’s coping response in terms of verbal behavior is a decrease in utterance length. It questions the motivational aspects of attorneys who interrogate black and white defendants differentially. It offers evidence that a defendant's verbal behavior is affected by the degree of the seriousness of the crime with which he is charged particularly when he is confronted with the potential danger and threat to this well being personified by the Prosecutor for the State under cross examination. It strongly suggests that the more immediate and the extent of the degree of potential harm or threat to the defendant, the more stress he experiences.