The Supreme Court long has recognized that in enforcing constitutional rights it must pay attention to the fact that juveniles are different from adults and that a criminal suspect’s mental condition can make him susceptible to coercion by police interrogators.
On Thursday the Supreme Court will consider whether to hear a case that raises both issues. It involves the appeal of Brendan Dassey, who claims that police took advantage of both his youth and his intellectual limitations to coerce him into confessing to helping his uncle, Steven Avery, kill and mutilate photographer Teresa Halbach in 2005. A jury in Wisconsin convicted Dassey of murder, sexual assault and mutilating a corpse.
Dassey is familiar to millions of Americans as the teenage suspect whose videotaped confession was featured as part of the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer.” Viewers saw a confused, sometimes disoriented teenager who seemed to be led to the “correct” answer by interrogators who worked to gain his confidence.
On IQ tests he scored in the “low average to borderline” disabled category, with a “well below average” verbal IQ score. His cognitive and social disabilities rendered him more “vulnerable to suggestion” than 95% of the population.
The confession the interrogators obtained from Dassey wasn’t just part of the case against him; it was the entire case. A federal appeals court panel that ruled in his favor in a habeas corpus action pointed out that “no one ever found a single hair, a drop of blood, a trace of DNA or a scintilla of physical evidence” to implicate Dassey in the crime.
The panel’s decision was reversed by the full U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. The majority concluded that the Wisconsin courts had acted reasonably in Massey’s case, and noted that he had spoken to law enforcement officers only after being advised of his Miranda rights and in an atmosphere free of physical coercion or intimidation.
Now Dassey is appealing to the Supreme Court. It should hear his case — but not because it has become a media sensation and not simply because Dassey’s lawyers make a strong argument that his confession was coerced. It’s an unfortunate reality that the Supreme Court can’t involve itself in every case of an alleged miscarriage of justice. It chooses the cases it hears because they raise some broader legal issue.
Dassey’s lawyers make a persuasive case that this case does raise a larger issue: the widespread failure by lower courts to take seriously the Supreme Court’s teaching over the years that “juveniles and those with intellectual deficits are at particular risk of confessing involuntarily — and often falsely — under the strain of coercive police tactics.”
In their petition to the court, they note that frequently “courts simply note a defendant’s age or mental limitations, rather than doing the actual evaluation of those characteristics — and how they bear on voluntariness — that this court’s precedent mandates.” (A juvenile suspect, especially without an attorney or parent in the room, might be especially susceptible to leading questions.)
Dassey’s lawyers speculate that the failure of lower courts to scrutinize juvenile confessions may reflect the fact that it has been nearly 40 years since the Supreme Court last handed down a major decision on the standards for assessing whether a confession by a juvenile suspect has been coerced. They also note that recent social science research confirms the correctness of the court’s decisions, “demonstrating that minors and persons with mental deficits are at a heightened risk of providing involuntary (and frequently false) confessions.”
The time has come for the Supreme Court to remind judges around the country that they must take both immaturity and intellectual disability into account in assessing whether a confession is voluntary. Even if it had never inspired a television series, the Dassey case provides an excellent vehicle for such a statement.