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Interview skills that bring a killer to justice

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Published on 25 May 2023

Police stock image
Police stock image

Former detective and investigations expert Gary Shaw who has advised in some of the UK’s most high-profile crimes was called in to share his expertise with police officers during interviews with the killer of schoolgirl Nikki Allan.

David Boyd was sentenced to life imprisonment this week, with a minimum term of 29 years, for the seven-year-old's murder in October 1992 at an abandoned warehouse close to her Sunderland home.

 Another neighbour, George Heron, who lived in the same flats as Nikki, was initially charged with her murder after being subjected to oppressive questioning by police, making a false 'confession' which was ruled inadmissible by a judge at the time. Heron was acquitted in 1993.

The acquittal led to a catalyst for changes at a national level in the way police interviews were conducted, thanks to the guidance of Gary Shaw.

Now a Professor of Professional Practice at the University of Sunderland, Gary has spent 45 years as a renowned investigator, revolutionising techniques used by detectives when interviewing suspects. Following a review into George Heron’s “unreliable” confession in 1994, Gary put together a Guide for Police Trainers which was distributed nationally in order that the police could learn the lessons from the interview.

“The PEACE* model of interviewing which was introduced at the time of the Nikki Allan murder case continues to be the national model for the police and has been adopted by other jurisdictions,” says Gary.

When the case was reopened in 2017, advances in forensic science enabled police to link DNA found on Nikki to Boyd, 55, of Stockton-on-Tees. And Boyd’s arrest brought Gary back to the case.

He explains: “I was involved in supporting Northumbria Police with putting together an interview strategy for Boyd. 

“I monitored the interviews live when they were being conducted too. I believe that the interview of Boyd had an important part to play in the investigation which brought the strands of the investigative material that had been gathered during the re-investigation together.

“Boyd spoke throughout the interviews only deciding to indicate ‘No Comment’ after the introduction of the exact location of his DNA in the latter stages of the process.

“I am pleased that I was able to perform a supportive role as part of the excellent team that finally brought the killer to justice.”

Gary believes the reason the PEACE model has stood the test of time is that it is still an effective structure that is supported by sound principles of how police, approach the gathering of information from a suspected person.

He says: “The main principle is that the interviewer is seeking accurate and reliable information which can help to prove or disprove someone’s involvement in an offence. 

“How an interviewee is dealt with in a professional manner is fundamental to creating a conducive environment that affords the suspect an opportunity to give an account if they chose to do so.

“The model is not guilt presumptive as the confession-based approach was in the past, but if the interviewer is in possession of contradictory information to the account given, a suspect will still be challenged in respect of this. 

“The important part is that they are challenged in a way that is acceptable in line with the existing legislation. Vulnerable people are given particular consideration at all times.”

Northumbria Police have written to George Heron to apologise, an apology also extended to Nikki’s family including her mother, Sharon Henderson, who has never stopped campaigning to get justice.h

Gary, who oversees and teaches on the BA in Applied Investigation and MA in Investigative Management programmes at the University, also leads the Centre for Crime, Policing and Investigations, working with several forces in investigative interview diplomas and research-based degrees to assist in the continuous professional development of officers. 

Before joining the University, Gary had a distinguished career with Northumbria Police, during which time he became the National Interview Advisor, spending time at police forces across the country examining interview techniques and putting into place a new strategy when it came to interviewing suspects. 

Some of the high-profile cases he has worked on include the 2010 murder of Joanna Yeates in Bristol, to the 2008 disappearance of West Yorkshire schoolgirl Shannon Matthews. From the 2005 shooting of police officer Sharon Beshenivsky to the 2015 headline-making case where Emile Cilliers tried to kill his wife Victoria by tampering with her parachute before a skydive.

Professor Lynne McKenna, Dean of the Faculty of Education and Society at the University of Sunderland, said: “Professor Gary Shaw’s groundbreaking work in the field of Investigations is world renowned. The contribution Gary has made to police interviewing processes and techniques has changed the way police interviews are conducted at a national level. 

“The Investigations programmes Gary leads at the University are ensuring that the next generation of police are equipped with the knowledge, skills and most up to date methods of conducting interviews."


*PEACE is an acronym and stands for Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure and Evaluate.

It is a non-accusatory interview technique designed to develop sufficient investigative information to determine the suspect's possible involvement in the criminal behaviour under investigation.

It involves much more conversation between the interviewer and suspect, working to establish a full account of events rather than focusing on a confession.