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Guilty: how to spot the lies told in court
How one man's testimony gave the game away
Joseph Peers has been found guilty of murder at Liverpool Crown Court along with three other men.
The verdict was no surprise to me. I read a news article that contained some of Peers’ testimony. It was riddled with deceptive language, and that continued through his days in the witness box.
Let’s have a look at how his statements leaked the truth. As always, one or two questionable word choices doesn’t prove someone is lying. However, multiple deceptive indicators mean there’s a high chance the truth isn’t being told.
Mr Peers was asked if he was involved in the killing and answered:
"Most definitely not... I was at home with my mother and my father and my two dogs."
This single answer contains four markers. Trying too hard, providing extra information that wasn’t asked for, formal language and a resume statement.
Here, a simple answer of “no, I wasn’t” would have answered the question in a straightforward manner. Mr Peers used “most definitely not”. When someone is being deceptive, they fear a simple bland denial like “no” isn’t strong enough, so they turn up the severity. Adding “most definitely” doesn’t make it any more true, but a liar may think it sounds more true. Honest people tend not to think that way.
In a similar vein, deceptive people often add in information they weren’t asked for. Again, they think it adds credibility to what they’re saying, but it’s not how honest people think or act.
If I asked you if you robbed a bank yesterday, would you be more likely to reply “no I didn’t” or “no most definitely not, it was at home with my wife, kids and cats”?
Sometimes in deception, we’ll see the person talking move from informal to formal language. This is a hope that if they use big words or less slang, they’ll appear more upstanding. “My mother and my father” is said here, from the rest of Peers’ answers I’d expect “mum and dad” or “parents”.
And that mention of his parents and the dog is a resume statement. This is when someone, unprompted, tells us who wholesome, clever or respectful they are.
Four markers in one short answer isn’t good.
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Talking more about that night, Mr Peers said, “I made my mum a cup of tea and was chilling on her bed for a bit before I came down and actually watched the fight.”
Can you get a clear picture of what he did with this description? Was his mum in bed or in her bedroom? He made the tea, but did he also take it to her? Did he make the tea downstairs, take it upstairs, stay upstairs for a while, then return downstairs?
When we talk about things we’ve truly done, we have authentic words to describe them. These words enable others to easily picture in their heads what we’re talking about. When we describe events we didn’t actually experience (because they’re made up) our words won’t be a vivid, and it’s harder for others to get a clear picture in our heads.
And the word “actually” in “...and actually watched the fight”. This is another word that doesn’t add anything to the meaning of what is said. A liar may feel that adding it in, they didn’t simply watch the fight, they actually watched the fight, makes it more believable.
This is another resume statement. He wants an effect of “I make tea for my mum. I chill on her bed. How could I possibly be involved in murder?”
Mr Peers then described his relationship with one of the targets of the gang.
“I knew him. He was a nice lad. Never had no trouble with him in my life."
There is a double negative here. Strictly, he is saying he did have trouble with him, but many of us will use double negatives when we truthfully mean the positive. It’s the negative part I want to focus on. He could have said that “we got on great” or “our relationship was fine”. This would indicate his focus was on the positive states. However, by raising mention of “trouble” it indicates that is where his focus was on and should direct us to ask: why bring up trouble rather than friendship?
Once more, Mr Peers feels the need not only to say something, but to add more to it. “Never had no trouble” would be enough, but he takes it to the absolute degree by adding “in my life”.
Mr Peers was questioned if he knew of any tensions between the defendants and the intended victim (this strife is known locally as “beef”). He said, "I was unaware of anything, especially any beef."
Here a “no, I wasn’t” would be a straightforward, believable answer. Once more, Mr Peers says more and takes it to an absolute. “I wasn’t aware of anything” isn’t a credible response, we’re all aware of something.
Then, after denying being aware of “anything”, he says “especially any beef”. That choice of words implies he was aware of something, for beef to stand out “especially” from other things.
Again, it’s in the negative. He could have said, ‘I believed everything was good between them”.
Questioning moved on to what Peers and others did after the killing, he went to a hotel with another member of the accused.
"The Mercure is a local gym where I go for a swim, steam and sauna. We were going to go later on in the night, when we got there the facilities were closed down for maintenance.”
"I was only going for a swim and sauna and it’s turned out to staying there. He’s paid me to book him a room in my name, with my own number, my own credit card. I can’t say why."
In this section, we have a curious change of pronoun. At first, he talks about the intentions of more than one person “We were going to go later on in the night, when we got there...”. Then it switches to himself, “I was only going for a swim”.
The line about booking a room under his name and paying for it with his credit card stretches credibility. Peers says, “he’s paid me to” rather than “he gave me money to”. Paid suggests a service, bosses pay employees, customers pay stores, businesses pay suppliers.
If he’d said, “he gave me money to book”, it would suggest more of a casual relationship. Choosing to use “paid” suggested to me this was a transaction for a reason.
Peers might want to give the impression that he doesn’t know why he was “paid” to do these things. However, his words let him down. He says, “I can’t say why” which literally means he knows, but can’t reveal the reason.
“It turned out to staying there…” is a jump in time. He is omitting the reasons why this trip to the pool ended up with him staying there. Why would that be?
On the road
Testimony then turned to a road trip.
“He said to me he was going up the road to pick some money up, if I came with him he’d give me a bevvy, a drink. Obviously I didn’t know what Witham was going to be up to in Aberdeen.”
The word “obviously” lets him down here. Obviously is a convincer, its use in deception is to have the effect of “what’s coming next is obvious, don’t question it, accept it. If you do question it, because it’s obvious, you’d be dumb”.
Peers claimed the arrest, for murder, of his travelling companion surprised him.
“That’s the most baffling part of it. He hadn’t said nothing, in fact he’s let me book hotels in my own name, let me store the car for him.”
“He’s used me, he took my kindness for weakness. I wouldn’t be involved in something like this.”
In this section, we have a double negative again, “he hadn’t said nothing”. Then a resume statement where he points out that he’s in a jam because he’s so kind. Sadly, he testified previously he was paid to book the room and given incentives to take the road trip. His kindness has a cost. Or maybe he’s not as kind as he’d like to make us think.
Finally, he says, “I wouldn’t be involved with something like this” which is NOT a denial of being involved in this murder, only of “something like” this murder.
“I can see how odd it looked. Anyone in their right mind would say yeah, youse were in it together. He’s used me. After this I would never, ever, ever have assisted him in booking hotels, moving the car.”
(Youse is a local plural for you)
“After this” is the giveaway in this section. The word “this” downplays matters a lot. He’s accused of murder at this point and claiming his friend hugely betrayed him. The best way he can describe it as “this”.
Peers doesn’t have the authentic language in him to convey the image he wants to. I believe he means “if I’d realised how I was being used” or “if I’d known I’d find myself caught in a murder trial, I would not have helped him”. He doesn’t say that - he merely says, “after this” which is much less powerful and doesn’t imply innocence.
There is an embedded confession in this line, “anyone in their right mind would say yeah, you were in it together”. He’s saying anyone sane would look at the evidence and conclude he did it. He might want to give the impression that although it looks like he was involved, he wasn’t, however he says if you apply sanity and logic, I was involved.
“I was blatantly lied to and that’s the truth.”
When someone feels the need to point out they are telling the truth, we should worry about two possibilities. Could it be they are lying, so feel the need to convince you it’s true by saying “this is true”? Or could it be everything else they’ve said is a lie, which is why they are flagging this as the truth? Either way, when someone says, “that’s the truth” or “to be honest”, it’s an indication they are lying about something.
Lowest of the low
It was put to Peers that he helped slash the tyres on the murdered woman’s car.
Peers said: “That’s what you suggest but I wouldn’t lower my standards to actually slashing someone’s tyres. It’s the lowest of the low.”
“That wasn’t me. Why would I slash someone’s tyres I don’t even know?
“These people had no trouble with me. I know them, there’s no way on earth I’d go and slash tyres and then have them lured out their house and then try and kill them.
"I know them, I know both of them.”
He could have said, “No, I didn’t slash the tyres”. Instead, he chooses to give a long statement which is full of deceptive markers:
He doesn’t directly say he didn’t slash the tyres
He’s on trial for murder but says slashing tyres is the “lowest of the low”. Does he consider murder a more honourable crime? Is slashing tyres for lowlifes while murder is what proper criminals do?
Whatever the truth, he is directly saying he has standards when it comes to criminal behaviour.
He asks a question “why would I...” which is a weak form of denial
The question he asks has poor logic. Money, revenge, orders are all possible reasons for slashing the tyres of someone you don’t know.
“These people had no trouble with me” is irrelevant. Did he have trouble with them?
He keeps saying he knows these people. Most people are murdered by someone they know. However, the fact he calls them “these people” and “them” rather than by their name suggests he was not close or familiar with them and even indicates dislike or disdain.
He says he would not slash the tyres of someone he doesn’t know, then points out he knows these people. In his own words, that means it’s possible he’d slash their tyres.
On the job
Peers was asked in court: “Your job was to drive the car and otherwise support James Witham in that plot to attack 40 Leinster Road and kill Lee Harrison, leaving behind no witnesses.”
Peers replied: “That was not my job.”
His response here doesn’t deny he had a job. It’s as if he feels his job description doesn’t match the one put to him in court, rather than him saying “I had no part in this”.
Peers was asked if he heard the victim shout after shots were fired.
“No, I was not there at that material time and I definitely wouldn’t have assisted someone to have been doing something like that.”
He’s answered with more than he was asked again. A regular deceptive marker for him. Another regular is that he says he wouldn’t have assisted “something like that” which is a general denial, not a denial of taking part in this murder.
Honesty at last
I haven’t been selective here. I’ve pulled out every quote of Peers from a local news outlet’s coverage of his testimony. In every line, I’ve found verbal markers of deception. One of two red flags doesn’t prove anything. Multiple markers, especially multiple occurrences of the same maker strongly indicate deception is happening.
Peers’ last quote in the coverage is the only line where I think he is being honest and straightforward. He says:
"It’s horrible, it’s disgusting, it should never have happened.”
Although this is honest, and I believe he means it. You’ll notice that, once more, there is no denial here.