`Did you have permission to smash your neighbour's door?' Silly questions and their answers in police—suspect interrogations

Discourse Studies 10 (1):89-111 (2008)
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Abstract

We examine the asking and answering of `silly questions' in British police interviews with suspects, the courses of action SQs initiate, and the institutional contingencies they are designed to manage. We show how SQs are asked at an important juncture toward the ends of interviews, following police officers' formulations of suspects' testimony. These formulations are confirmed or even collaboratively produced by suspects. We then examine the design of SQs and show how they play a central role in the articulation of suspects' reported `state of mind', and particularly attributing to them criminal intentions constitutive of the offence with which they may be charged. In cases where SQs do not produce unambiguous answers about `state of mind' or intentionality, police officers move toward direct questioning about suspects' intent, thus making explicit the project of SQs in such interviews. Following SQ—Answer sequences, police officers reformulate suspects' testimony, with subtle but crucial differences with regard to suspects' knowledge state and criminal intent. Suspects overwhelmingly align with police officers' formulations of their testimony, and such agreements have the interactional shape of affiliation. Yet SQs may work in ways that are institutionally adversarial with regard to criminal charges, relevant evidence and self-incriminating testimony.

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