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  • Ephrat Livni

Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” may push SCOTUS to address a fundamental injustice

The US Supreme Court has long warned judges to be circumspect about accepting confessions from kids as evidence in criminal cases. They haven’t always listened and convictions based on involuntary admissions abound. The case of Brendan Dassey—featured in the 2015 Netflix documentary Making a Murderer—is an opportunity to change that, or so he argues in a petition for review (pdf) at the high court.

Dassey is serving a life sentence for murder, rape, and corpse mutilation, crimes he admitted to when he was 16. He has an IQ of 70 and linguistic difficulties. In 2005, after a series of interviews with the police—who pulled him out of school to talk, and seemed to be feeding him answers until they got the responses they wanted—the teenager admitted to killing Teresa Halbach, a 25-year-old woman visiting his uncle.

There was no attorney or parent with Dassey during most of his meetings with police. No physical evidence linked him to the crime. After he confessed to murder, the teenager asked to be taken back to classes.

Making a bigger case of it

In 2015, Making a Murderer made Dassey’s case famous. Now, his formidable legal team argues the Supreme Court should review the voluntariness of his confession—and not just for his sake. It’s a chance for the high court to provide guidance on coerced admissions and prevent the pernicious problem that has persisted for so long in the US justice system.

In 1948, the Supreme Court said children are easy prey for cops seeking criminal confessions, writing in Haley v. Ohio, “That which would leave a man cold and unimpressed can overawe and overwhelm a lad.” The case was about a 15-year-old boy who confessed to murder after a night of police brutality.

Similarly, in 1953 in Stein v. New York, justices wrote that what “might be utterly ineffective against an experienced criminal, would be over-powering to the weak of will or mind.” In other words, the intellectually challenged are more vulnerable to authorities.

Nonetheless, confessions are still coerced from the young and mentally challenged, and still serve as the basis for convictions. When a confession is admitted to evidence, judges are supposed to test their value by weighing the totality of the circumstances. They have to consider factors like age, intelligence, and the context in which questioning took place, among other things, and some factors can matter more than others.

The voluntariness of a juvenile’s confession, or that of someone with diminished intellectual capacity, is considered especially questionable. Still, lower court judges don’t always weigh these factors heavily enough, and Dassey’s attorneys argue that this is because the Supreme Court hasn’t taken a case that addresses the issues in decades.

Reviewing Dassey’s confession, they say, provides an opportunity for the high court to clarify just how judges should apply the “totality of the circumstances” test. “This case provides an excellent vehicle to do so, because it provides a particularly clear, egregious example,” according to Dassey’s counsel.

Specifically, his petition argues that the Wisconsin judge who admitted his confession didn’t seriously consider Dassey’s age and intellect. “To the contrary,” is states, “[the court] gave those attributes the same glancing treatment as other facts it deemed equally relevant to voluntariness—like the upholstery on the couch Dassey sat on during questioning.”

Dassey’s attorneys say the judge simply recited the elements of the test without truly weighing what it means when a teen with a low IQ and communication problems is pulled out of school, questioned by police, and confesses to heinous crimes. They argue that the judge ignored the fact that Dassey gave wrong answers to police until they led him to the responses they wanted. And still, his appeals failed.

The tenuous value of confessions

Most cases don’t get as much attention as Dassey’s. “But, while shocking, the sad truth is that this story is all too common,” the American Bar Association (ABA) explains on its website. “The tactics used by police to steamroll a child into confessing to a crime can offend our most basic notions of fairness and justice, not to mention the presumption of innocence that our criminal justice system is supposed to provide.”

According to the Innocence Project, false confessions played a role in nearly 30% of all wrongful convictions uncovered by DNA evidence. The National Registry of Exonerations’s data on wrongful convictions shows there have been 221 exonerations involving false confessions since 1989—a number the ABA notes doesn’t even represent the extent of the problem, given all the false confessions (pdf) that go unproven.

Juveniles, in particular, falsely confess “with startling frequency,” the ABA says. They are two to three times more likely to admit crimes they didn’t commit during interrogation than adults. A study of 340 exonerations found that 42% of juveniles had falsely confessed, compared with only 13% of adults. Meanwhile, the ABA reports, an experimental study found that a majority of youth complied with a request to sign a false confession “without uttering a single word of protest.”

The research certainly lends credence to the contention that coerced confessions deserve the high court’s attention. Justices are scheduled to consider Dassey’s petition June 14.


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