Aug. 31, 2010 -- Houston Homicide Detective Sgt. Brian Harris knows how to fire a pistol and work a crime scene, like all cops do. But his real talent comes out in the interrogation room -- or as police like to call it -- "The Box."
"[The Box] is the place where it all happens," Harris says. "It can save a lot of families a lot of heartache. It makes sense out of all the nonsense and craziness of some of the deaths that we deal with."
Harris, who is considered the grand inquisitor of Houston Homicide Division, teaches his interrogation technique at the Houston Police Department academy and to other departments around the country.
ABC News' "Primetime: Crime" was granted unprecedented access to the inner-workings of the Houston Homicide Division, to explore how Harris plies his trade.
The police interrogation has been a staple of television cop shows for generations. From "Dragnet" to "Law & Order: SVU," there's something about the belligerent interrogations that keep you on the edge of your seat. But Harris says there's a big difference between Hollywood-style interrogations and the real thing.
"Yelling at 'em, smacking 'em, making 'em feel like a piece of dirt...at least here in Houston, Texas, it's not gonna work," he says.
Instead, Harris is known for a decidedly different technique.
"I treat them with dignity," he told ABC News' Chris Cuomo. "If they can see me as a person that views them with dignity, the chances of communicating are starting to open up."
Indeed, in the more than 12 unedited interrogations supplied to ABC News, most feature Harris as a cordial confidante.
In the case of one murder suspect, James McCann, who ultimately capitulated and was convicted of killing his estranged wife, Harris tells him, "Even when you wanted the divorce, you still took care of her. Not many men would do that, Jim."
McCann's case is one of three that will be featured on tonight's edition of "Primetime Crime."
Tell-Tale Signs of Deception, Non-Verbal Cues
While they lay out their alibis, Harris patiently observes the suspects, looking for telltale signs of deception. Some are subtle, such as when McCann tells Harris: "Honestly, I don't know what happened" when he's asked whether he murdered his wife.
Words like "'sincerely', 'honestly', 'truthfully'...L-Y is like a big red flag going up, because I'm like, 'Here it comes'...it's a qualifying statement," Harris says.
Then there are the non-verbal cues. Harris teaches his students to look for nervous grooming gestures like hair twirling, face rubbing, and above all, defensive body posture -- when a suspect closes himself off or backs away from his interrogator. Of course, one nervous indicator does not imply guilt.
"It's the totality of the whole package," says Harris. "You might lean back [during an interrogation] and be like...'Get out of my face, man. That's not what happened.' And you would create that distance."
Before an interview even begins, Harris makes sure the box is set up in a way that gives him a psychological edge. The walls are kept blank. The suspect's chair is on straight legs while the interrogator's is on rollers.
That way, "I may start off being three to four feet away...[but] when they're right about to confess...I may be within inches of them," he says.
And, just as he enters the room, Harris likes to run a little experiment.
"If they have food in front of them and they don't eat or they're having a hard time eating, that tells me I might have a shot at this person," he says. " They have a conscience. They have a soul."
After all, how many of us, when we're so upset, have tried to eat a meal?
Case of 15-Year-Old Houston Teen Gunned Down
In a second case profiled by "Primetime Crime," police were called to a local Houston park in the wee morning hours of August 9, 2006. Gunshots were reported and police discovered the bullet-riddled body of 15-year-old Jose Lorenzo.
"He was a beautiful and handsome boy. He was, and he is, my angel," Jose's mother, Judith Anderson, told ABC News.
Jose's cell phone records indicate that minutes before his murder, he received numerous calls from a friend, another 15-year-old named Frank Spencer. Spencer's mom said her son, a minor, could be brought in for questioning. But since Spencer was not under arrest, Harris was not required to read him his Miranda rights. In other cases where mirandizing the suspects is required, Harris often gets them to talk anyway, telling them that waiving their rights is the only way he can hear their side of the story. Is it manipulative? Maybe. Is it legal? Absolutely.
In Spencer's case, it doesn't take long for Harris to develop a theory: "[Frank] is part of a gang and the gang asked Frank [Spencer] to help kill his friend."
But getting Spencer to confess would be another matter. First, Harris leverages his personal connection to Spencer. Harris and Spencer's mother attend the same church. He uses that fact to soften up the suspect.
"Your mom, number one, loves you," Harris tells him. "And number two, works her ass off for you, OK? You at least need to be able to explain how you got wrapped up in all this."
Spencer later told ABC News: "That was a shocker at that point...I'd go, 'Well, how did this man know so much about me?'"
The Art of Bluffing
Harris also gives Spencer the impression that his fellow gang members are at the station ratting him out. Cops call this bluffing. Defense attorneys call it lying.
"Unfortunately for the defendants and the suspects in America, the courts have blessed officers being able to lie to suspects about evidence," says Houston defense attorney Danny Easterling.
At the time of the interrogation, none of Spencer's friends had yet spoken to the cops, but the bluff is enough to seemingly make Spencer nervous -- so nervous that he begins to exhibit what Harris calls the "surrender position." With Spencer's head down and his foot tapping, Harris knows he's onto something.
"We're being told that you're the shooter," Harris tells Spencer. Spencer, defeated, says, "Yeah, I shot him."
ABC News also saw Harris use the bluff in another case, this one involving Christine Paolilla who was accused of shooting and killing four people -- two of whom were her close high school friends.
Paolilla is emphatic on the interrogation tape. "I had nothing to do with this," she tells Harris.
"I was also running a bluff on her," Harris admits. "Letting her think that we had her boyfriend, Christopher Snider, in custody, which we didn't."
Testing a Suspect's Guilty Conscience
Before that, however, Harris tried to get a sense of Paolilla's guilty conscience by asking her a simple question: "Do you believe you deserve justice or mercy?"
"'Justice' is people getting what they deserve," Harris said. "And 'mercy' is people getting what they need -- not what they want, not what they deserve -- but what they need."
It's a masterful technique -- since no matter what the subject chooses, admitting a need for either justice or mercy is in itself a big step towards admitting guilt.
Harris has anticipated Paolilla's response -- "mercy." He then follows up, saying, "I'd like to be able to understand why."
A short little while later Paolilla makes a dubious statement; that her boyfriend forced her to shoot her friends.
"I had made the gun go off. Not purposely, though," she tells Harris's partner.
The jury didn't buy it and Paolilla was sentenced to life in prison.
Non-Coercive Interrogation Proves Key in Court, Harris Says
But even when he pressures suspects with the facts, Harris can't always get a confession in person.
In the case of James McCann, the man brought in and accused of killing his estranged wife, Hattie Faye, Harris must wait patiently. It takes an initial hour-long interrogation, then hours of polygraph testing days later, to get McCann, in what looks like an act of conscience, to confess.
"He decided to write me an apology letter and describe what happened," tells Harris. Harris read the note to "Primetime Crime," "I am very sorry I've not been honest," it reads.
In a second interrogation conducted one week after the first, McCann explains that he, "Got one of those pillows and I was just gonna put it over her face and scare her...I guess I lost [track of] time."
There is little denying the importance of a non-coercive interrogation that passes muster with a judge.
"In a courtroom, when a jury sees a defendant sitting there, trying to say he wasn't part of something and the next thing here you have a tape or a videotape or a written confession and the person is admitting to the act that they're trying to now deny," Harris says, "There's nothing more damning."
The innocent have little to fear in the interrogation room, Harris says, but the guilty have more to fear in this masterful game of cat and mouse.
"If you've done something and you think that you're smarter than us? We've been doing this a long time," explains Harris. "You're gonna talk to me."