Chances are that unless you’ve been hiding under a rock you’ve heard about Netflix’s “Making a Murderer.” If you haven’t, or are in the process of watching it, don’t worry, we’re not going to spoil anything. If you have seen the show, then you’ve witnessed an example of blatant police discrimination and just how two people can be put away for potentially wrongful convictions.
Making a Murderer - Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey
The show focuses on Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man that spent 18 years in prison for a rape he did not commit - DNA evidence exonerated him in that case - and then was convicted of the gruesome murder of photographer Teresa Halbach. Avery was in the process of suing Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, the former district attorney, and the county sheriff for $36 million when he was accused of murdering Halbach.
Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, was also implicated in the crime. Dassey received a life sentence for being a party to first-degree intentional homicide, sexual assault, and mutilating Halbach’s body. Now 26 years old, Dassey will be eligible for parole on Oct. 31, 2048.
Both the Wisconsin state appeals court and the state supreme court have denied request to reexamine the case in the past, it looks like Dassey might just have another shot at being freed from prison.
Another Day for Dassey
Dassey’s lawyers have filed a suit in federal court that could result in not only a new trial, but potentially Dassey’s release should the lawyers be able to prove Dassey was illegally arrested and incarcerated for his connection to Halbach’s murder. Dassey’s lawyers submitted a petition for a writ of habeas corpus. A writ of habeas corpus requires a person under arrest to be brought before a judge or into court in an attempt to secure a person’s release unless lawful grounds are shown for their detention. The lawyers are trying to prove that Dassey was not imprisoned lawfully.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice has also filed a brief in the case. As a result of that filing and Dassey’s lawyers’ filing, Federal Magistrate, Judge William E. Duffin of Milwaukee, may review the filings and make a decision to either order a new trial, release Dassey, or reject the petition. According to court officials, there’s been no timetable given for when all of this may or may not occur.
Halbach Murder Investigtion
At the time of Halbach’s murder, Dassey was just 16. As the show describes, Dassey is learning disabled and unable to read above a fourth-grade level. When watching the show, it’s obvious that Dassey is clueless to just what is unfolding before him and what the consequences are for him. While being interrogated by police, it’s undeniable that he is coerced into implicating himself by the Manitowoc County police that are investigating the crime.
Since the beginning of the appeals process, Dassey’s lawyers have claimed that his age at the time and his lacking intellectual abilities prevented him from resisting the psychological interrogation tactics employed by the investigators. His lawyers are also claiming that Dassey’s pretrial lawyer did not have his best interests in mind - a point that is touched on in the final episode of the show. “A lot of our appeal has to do with the actions that Brendan’s original attorney Len Kachinsky took, which demonstrated his disloyalty to Brendan and his willingness to work with the prosecution to try to get Brendan to plead guilty and testify against Steven Avery,” said Steven Drizin, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law who is among the attorneys representing Dassey.
“Something wrong happened here,” says Laura Nirider, one of Dassey’s lawyers. She is an attorney at Bluhm Legal Clinic at the Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. “Everybody has a right to have a loyal attorney. His confession was fictitious.”
A Closer Look at Dassey’s Interrogation
As we’ve written about before, detectives will employ a number of techniques to get an admission of guilt. One of these techniques is the Reid Technique which was first developed in the 1940s. This is usually referred to as the “good cop, bad cop” technique.
Within the Reid Technique, there are three concepts police rely on to convince a suspect that it is in his or her best interested to confess to a crime, regardless of if they are guilty or not.
- Isolation. Interrogators will isolate the suspect from family and friends in an attempt to make that person feel alone. As in Dassey’s case, we saw him in multiple windowless interrogation rooms.
- Maximization. An interrogating officer will start out stating that the suspect is guilty and that the suspect and all the other people on the case know that the suspect is guilty. An officer will present the theory of how the crime went down. Often times this is based on evidence, and other times the officer is simply grappling for straws and fabricating the story in an attempt to get the actual full story. We can see this in Dassey’s case when the interrogators lead him with unreleased details about the case. Then, when Dassey disputes the detectives’ claims and version of events, they tell him to stop lying. During this presentation of the “theory,” an officer will essentially “drop breadcrumbs,” or offer details that a suspect will then parrot back to the officer. Claims for innocence by the suspect are ignored or refuted by the interrogator. Hence, the “bad cop” role. The “bad cop” knows the suspect is lying, knows the suspect committed the crime, and knows that the suspect is only wasting everyone’s time by refusing to come clean.
- Minimization. After the “maximization” part of the interview is complete, the officer will move on to the “good cop” role of “minimization.” This is when the interrogator tells the suspect that they believe the motives behind the crime, and that everyone else will also understand the motives, so why not just confess? Oftentimes individuals will be lured with promises of a lesser charge or the ability to go home if they confess. Throughout Dassey’s entire case it is clear that all he wants to do is go home. In fact, after “confessing” to raping Teresa Halbach, slitting her throat, and helping burn her body, Dassey then asks detectives how much longer the interrogation will take because he has a school project in one of his afternoon periods that he has to return to.
The best way to defend yourself against the Reid Technique is to avoid saying anything and asking for a lawyer. Unfortunately for Dassey, on watching the videotape of his interrogation, it’s obvious that the intellectually challenged teen was it was unaware of this technique, and was thus unable to defend himself against his interrogators.
On watching the show, a viewer might wonder just how someone could confess to doing horrific things they did not do. In Dassey’s case it seems obvious that he is not mentally equipped to understand the techniques that interrogators are using. But according to the Innocence Project, a national litigation and policy organization, false confessions are not uncommon. An analysis done by the Project found that of 225 wrongful-conviction cases cleared through DNA evidence, 23 convictions were made on false confessions. And according to data from the National Registry of Exonerations, false confessions are the reason behind thirteen percent of exonerations. And of that thirteen percent, 22 percent were for homicide cases.
Juvenile False Confessions
Not surprisingly, the rate for juvenile false confessions is even higher. According to data from the National Registry of Exonerations, false confessions in juvenile exonerations was at 38 percent.
There are many reasons for why juveniles might be more susceptible to providing false confessions: less sophisticated reasoning abilities because of their youth, and juveniles are more prone to fall prey to high-pressure and manipulative interrogation techniques.
But there’s also another reason behind why juveniles might be more likely to give false confessions, and that’s improper interrogation practices.
As was made evident in Dassey’s case, parents or lawyers are not always present at the time of interrogation. While it is legal for a child to be questioned without the presence of their parent, in Dassey’s case it just seems unfair due to his mental capacity. Drizin, one of Dassey’s attorney maintains Dassey’s confession was coerced “by [investigators] feeding him facts,” something that might not have happened had his mother or a lawyer been in the room at the time of the interrogation. Drizin went on to say, “To me, this case is a classic example of how not to interrogate juvenile suspects and the tactics that were used during Brendan’s interrogation are a recipe for false confessions.”
We’ll have to wait and see how Federal Magistrate Duffin responds to the submitted petition for a writ of habeas corpus. Without a doubt, we’ll be on the edge of our seats waiting for the conclusion to this cliffhanger.
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