Showing Up Says a Lot about What You Have to Say: A Letter to a Witness Who Demands a Virtual Interview


Dear Witness,

We regret to hear you are displeased with the situation, but we can only interview you in person. We cannot accommodate your request to hold the interview remotely by zoom, or by phone.

Your assessment that it’s less convenient, and places more of a burden on key witnesses is accurate. But, in person interviews remain an industry best practice. We hope that explaining the reasons for this, we may assuage your concerns. (Note: for supplemental witnesses, we may occasionally be able to work virtually because of costs and time.)

1. In-Person Fact Finders

Investigators are not simply recording witness’ statements in order to preserve them. We also have the responsibility to determine both whether what witnesses are saying is true, and whether they believe it to be true (which are not always the same thing). We are not just listening and taking notes; we are weighing what the witness has to say, and gauging their credibility. This is a difficult task, and investigators need every tool at their disposal. Virtual platforms such as Zoom do not allow us to fully see or hear the interviewee. Thus, a virtual interview limits our ability to perform the task.

2. Interactions in the Interview

I know you have written us about your position, and you wonder why that isn’t enough. But it’s much easier for someone to articulate their position on paper than to say it face-to-face. The interviewee’s body language from their feet to their hands and head is important. Their ability to see the investigator is important too. Some witnesses will change their position in mid-conversation if they see the body language of the listener indicates that their story is not having an effect. Saying the words out loud and observing the effect on the entire listener is important to both sides of the conversation. It guides both the witness and the interviewer in the direction of truth.

3. Eye Contact and Reading Credibility

What are physical issues in reading credibility? Some people sweat and get anxious when they are not telling the truth. Some people may be able to sit still and stare at a camera when lying, but their legs under the table may be shaking or moving about. Some people have a difficult time looking another person directly in the eye when saying something that is not completely true. Unobstructed eye contact is extremely important in gauging credibility.

But it is literally impossible to look someone in the eye in a virtual interview. Each participant looks at a screen, not even a camera, and their mind subconsciously is aware of this and feels much more at ease. Eyes naturally wander around the screen during a virtual call rather than looking directly at the person; which would be the natural tendency in a normal face-to-face conversation. It’s generally not possible to  line up the camera perfectly with the face, so no one is ever really looking at the other. It’s quite awkward, actually.

4. An Equal Playing Field

If we wrote up a report stating that during a virtual interview, the witness’ body was quivering, they were sweating profusely, their voice was quivering, and they were avoiding eye contact, what would an outside observer’s  response be? They could say: “You could not clearly see or hear any of that in a virtual interview!” or “You could not possibly see their entire body language!” or “They could not possibly look the interviewer in the eye because it was a Zoom call!”  In other words, physical observations from a virtual interview are easy to discredit. And observations about body language that are imperfect can lead to the conclusion that the interview process was unfair to that witness.  

In addition, both the person bringing allegations and the person being accused deserve a completely fair process— which means they are not only entitled to an in-person interview with a full hearing, but they are also entitled to have those who disagree with them to likewise be tested with an in-person interview.

5. Building Rapport (It’s Harder Online)

Zoom is not a good way to get to know another human being and establish any sort of true understanding. Even when we do in-person interviews, I am often a second interviewer, taking notes over a virtual platform hundreds of miles away. Seeing the tiny witness on a tiny screen diminishes my ability to read the witness. The investigator in-person has a much better read on the witness and much better rapport.

It's also hard to follow up well in a virtual interview. In person, it’s easier to identify when you need to press forward and ask more questions or get more details.

6. Protecting Those Who’ve Been Harmed

Sometimes, people who are interviewing have been traumatized. If someone has been traumatized, they may need a sensitive approach during an interview. They may need breaks, or water, or coffee. They may need to end the interview quickly. In a worst-case scenario, they may decompensate and we may need to call 911.

It is very difficult to provide someone with a sensitive, compassionate interview over Zoom, to determine when they need a break, to tell when things are going badly. And of someone suddenly needs help, it’s hard to do anything about it from hundreds of miles away.

7. Skin in the Game

We also consider whether a witness is willing to put forth the necessary effort to tell his or her story. It may well be that there are witnesses who wish to talk to us face-to-face to discredit another person’s story. These are often witnesses who have not been accused of wrongdoing and therefore are not trying to defend themselves. If other witnesses who don’t agree with  the accused’s position are interviewed in-person and the accused is not, that disadvantages them.

For investigators, the fact that someone is willing to take the time and effort to show up and have a possibly uncomfortable face-to-face encounter says something about what the person has to say and how important they believe it is—and even whether they may have something to hide.

In sum, virtual conferences are a great way to meet with people, up to a point. But their usefulness is limited in investigative interviews and can affect the fairness of an investigation. In an effort to provide the most thorough, honest, and fair investigation possible, we hope that you will let us know if there is any further assistance we can provide to help you consider participating in an in-person interview.



Investigation Attorney


Featured Image by Rebecca Sidebotham.

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations