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Killer Instinct: Chris Hansen reveals how he gets inside the minds of murderers

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Stephanie Diani/Discovery ID

If you know true crime, you know Chris Hansen. The former host of DatelineTo Catch a Predator, and the current host of Crime Watch Daily is about to launch the third season of Investigation Discovery show Killer Instinct, a series that centers on finding the truth behind America’s most headline-worthy murders. Ahead of the season premiere Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET on ID, EW caught up with Hansen for a behind-the-scenes look on what goes into these beguiling series.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Is there one characteristic in all of these cases you tend to look for?
CHRIS HANSEN: I think it’s the interview — you need to really get in these people’s heads. And there’s a fine line between being respectful to somebody and to getting the details that make the narrative compelling. And I think we walk that fine line very carefully. And I also think that this is one of those situations where the team has jelled so well that it’s almost like a TV family out there. So we go out in the field and everybody works together in a way that just brings these stories to life in a way no one else does. And when we look for stories, we look for stories that are either very compelling that very few people have heard about — perhaps because there was some other big national news story happening at the time — or we look for a story that everybody knows about, but where specific folks involved in the story have never spoken out before. And that’s what we focus on.

How do you stay optimistic and not get caught up with the morbidity that you’re dealing with on a daily basis?
[Laughs] Well, that’s a good question. We’re sort of in this dark world for many, many years now, and I think it’s like, 36 years in the business as a reporter. But you know, the world is not all bad. What we try to do is get into the mind of a criminal — whether it’s a killer or some other kind of criminal for any other shows — and hear the voice of the victim. And I think when you do that, you can actually prevent somebody else from becoming a victim. And that’s part of why we do this show. And I really live that, and I think the entire crew lives that.

Which episode did you find the most provocative this season?
I think it’s a 10-way tie for first. They’re all very provocative, they’re engaging, they’re important. But I think the one that really hit home with me was the story of Susannah Chase, who was a co-ed at University of Colorado. And while I bond with everybody in these stories — and that’s how you do these compelling interviews — it makes a difference when you can relate to the victims of the families and the detectives who work the case.

Do you find it’s generally harder to talk to the families of the victims, the families of whoever the perpetrator is, or the perpetrators themselves?
I treat every one individual specifically. As a parent who is also a journalist, when I talk to the brother and the sister of a victim or the parent of a victim, I put myself in their position and imagine what would it be like if that happened to me. That’s how I treat them. And I do the same for the family of a perpetrator. You know, what happened if you had a bad seed? And when it is the perpetrator, you have to listen — just like in the Predator investigations, the ones we do now for Hansen vs. Predator, on Crime Watch Daily, or the past ones we did for Dateline, you gotta listen. The key to being a good interviewer is to listen, no matter how heinous the act that person has committed, you have to listen to them and ask the right questions to get the truth out. And they may bulls—t you, but at the same time, you know better and you can get the truth out of them and get a compelling interview.

Are there any crimes you gravitate toward covering?
No, I think it’s all fascinating. I mean, every day between two shows, every day is fascinating. I spent this morning with Carrie Kennedy of the RFK Foundation talking about wrongly accused teens who are in Rikers Island. So there’s an injustice there on a couple of different levels. Now, some of these guys deserve it. Some of them have committed the crimes. And it’s not society’s problem that they can’t bail out after shooting somebody, but there are many others who don’t deserve to be there. And I think that’s the other side of the coin, is while we go after the people who have committed the crimes, we also have to look at the other side of the criminal justice system. And I think that’s a fascinating and very important thing that we do.

In terms of dealing with injustices that were committed by lawmakers, cops, what have you, how do you approach that when you interview them? Do you still make sure to call them out on their bulls—t, so to speak?I think there’s a way of doing it. Anybody can jump out of the bushes and scare somebody and get 10 seconds of dramatic video. The key to a good interview, or a good exposé, is to know your facts, to have everything down, and to peel away the onion and to be a good listener and let them have their say. I’m not out to beat the heck out of anybody. You gotta do interviews every day, and they don’t end well for some people, but I’ve never had one end where I don’t shake hands at the end of the deal, including with the predators.

Piggybacking off of that, how do you usually prepare for these interviews?
I get a research packet, and I immerse myself in it. I spend some time going through it and thinking about it. I don’t like a list of questions. I’m not gonna look at it. I’ll make sure that we get everything, but the key to a good interview is to know that when you’re finished, I’m exhausted, the interview subject is exhausted. I turn to the producer and director and say, “Is there anything else?” and they say, “No” or “Yeah, one thing” or “I have two things.” To look down a list of questions is not an interview. You have to get in that person’s mind, you have to live in that moment, and you have to listen, and that’s how you do an interview.

What’s been the most exhausting interview for you?
Oh God. I was in Attica Prison last week, interviewing Danny Pelosi. It’s exhausting because he wants to tell his story all in one breath. And I’m trying to do an interview that’s going to be digestible for viewers and to get the truth out of him. Those are the interviews that are hard work, because you know you have exactly one hour in the prison to do it.

Did you feel that was also your most rewarding interview though?
You know, I’ve had a lot of rewarding interviews. And, a lot of times, it’s the connection you make with the family of the victim, or near-victim, or somebody who spills their heart out to you for the first time. And often times, it’s somebody who’s watched my shows and feels comfortable with doing it. All the interviews we did for Killer Instinct this season, people did it because they trusted us. They trusted me, they trusted the show, and they’re fans of ID, and they were willing to work with us, and I don’t take that responsibility lightly.

Do you have any cases that you would love to investigate that you haven’t had a chance to delve into yet?
Oh yeah. I mean, every time we do an interview with a DA or a detective, they always say, “I have three other stories that are worthy of you looking into.” That’s what gives this series so much of the longevity, is that every time we do a story, we get turned on to three more. So that’s season 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. It’s never-ending. I mean, crime doesn’t stop. And I suppose there’s job security in that [laughs], but we’re there to take a look at it. It never grows old to me. It’s just fascinating and I enjoy digging into it.