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  • Jesse Mulligan

Wrongful convictions and false confessions

The true crime documentary series, Making a Murderer, became a global phenomenon when it first aired three years ago featuring the case of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey who were convicted of murdering a woman in Wisconsin.

Dassey was 16 at the time and his lawyers say he gave a false confession that led to his conviction.

Laura Nirider co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, says false confessions, dubious interrogation tactics and wrongful convictions are a global problem.

Listen to Laura Nirider:

She talked to Afternoons ahead of a stop in New Zealand in March on the Inside Making a Murderer tour.

For people who haven’t seen the Netflix show, the case started about 15 years ago when a Wisconsin man, Steven Avery, was exonerated by DNA evidence of a rape he did not commit but spent 18 years in prison for.

Avery became a local celebrity and legislation was named after him but, two years after his release, he was charged with the murder of a young woman named Teresa Halbach.

Six months after Avery’s arrest, police questioned his 16-year-old nephew Brendan Dassey who was mentally limited. Dassey was accused of helping his uncle rape and murder Halbach.

“Brendan was questioned four times over 48 hours without a parent or lawyer present and eventually, as you can see on the tapes, agreed to adopt a story, that the police fed to him, in which he helped his uncle in this rape and murder,” Nirider tells Jesse Mulligan.

Both Dassey and Avery were charged with the woman’s death and both were convicted. Dassey was sentenced to life in prison.

Nirider and her colleague Steve Drizen have represented Dassey since.

“It’s absolutely heart-breaking - for folks who remember watching Making a Murderer – I think one of the most arresting scenes is when you have Brendan trying to confess to this murder to please his interrogators and he can’t even describe how the murder happened. He has to be told how this woman was killed – she was shot in the head – and he had to be told that in order for him to be able to describe this murder correctly.”

Nirider was drawn to the case while she was a third year law student in a class on wrongful convictions taught by Drizin, a world-leading expert on interrogation and false confessions. Drizin was asked to get involved in the Dassey case and assigned Nirider as a colleague.

“That’s when my life changed. I watched those interrogation tapes that everybody else saw in Making a Murderer and I had the same reaction that the world had – that this was wrong and what can I do to stop this now.”

“That was it for me. I ended up joining Steve [Drizin]’s practice in Northwestern, building with him the Centre on Wrongful Convictions of Youths where we represent Brendan, and many other kids just like him who falsely confessed, and we try to exonerate folks.”

The Reid Technique

She says it might seem strange that people would falsely confess to heinous crimes like rape and murder, but “hundreds and hundreds and hundreds” of people have because of the way psychological interrogation works.

“It works by turning the world on its head by suddenly making it seem as though it’ll help you if you say you did these things. That’s how it works.”

In Brendan’s case, he was pulled aside at school by police and told that the prosecutor was going to charge him with helping his uncle in the rape and murder of Halbach, which “was a complete lie.”

“There was not a shred of evidence tying Brendan to this murder. But they dropped this bombshell threat on him, this 16-year-old special education student, ‘you might be facing chargers Brendan’ and they say to him, and it’s all captured on tape, ‘don’t worry. As long as you fill in the blanks, we’ll be able to help you, you’re going to be OK, you’re going to be alright, you’re going to have nothing to worry about. Just fill in this blanks for us.’

“And then, of course, over those four rounds of questioning, they tell him exactly how to fill in those blanks, down to the details of how they believe this murder happened. Brendan agreed to that story because, all of a sudden, he’s being told ‘there’s murder charges if you don’t say anything, but we’ll take care of you, you’ll be OK, just so long as you fill in those blanks’. That’s how this happened for Brendan, and that’s actually how many false confessions are generated, using these very similar tactics.”

Nirider says it’s very hard for jurors to wrap their heads around the idea that someone would make a false confession without the right context. She says that in Brendan’s case, no one was there to break down the confession tapes and highlight the issues with the interrogation.

“Instead, they were just shown the whole video, from start to finish, with – I might add – the exception of the last five minutes of that video-taped final interrogation, and the jury never saw what was on those five minutes, and that’s when Brendan recants the confession and tells his mother ‘they got to my head, that’s why I confessed, I didn’t really do it’. That clip was never shown to the jury in Brendan’s case. They only saw the part where he’s repeating the story of his guilt.”

Police aren’t necessarily corrupt or out to get someone in these cases, she says. They’re often situations where they want to catch the criminal and are using interrogation techniques they’ve been trained to use, and told to use, without realising that these techniques run a risk of generating false confessions.

“In fact, we work with police officers very closely - decades long homicide detectives - who inadvertently have taken false confessions and realise only after the fact and have become horrified and are pushing the need to reform interrogation tactics to find new ways of questioning suspects so they can get reliable information in the interrogation room.”

At the centre of many false confession cases is an interrogation practice called The Reid Technique, developed in the 1940s, which is an accusatory method where the suspect is told that evidence clearly indicates they did the crime in question as a starting point. The evidence could be real or made up. It’s widely used in North America and other parts of the world but has been criticised and even banned in some countries due to its misleading nature, presumptive guilt of suspects, and for generating false confessions.

Nirider says it’s a technique that’s very good at getting true confessions, but “it is so potent, so powerful, and sometimes so manipulative” that it can also cause false confessions.

Dassey is still in prison after an appeal was shut down by a state of Wisconsin appeal at the 11th hour. However, Nirider says he still has plenty of appeal options available to him and he’s hanging in there.

“He was 16 when this happened to him. He’s 29-years-old now. He’s grown up into a deeply kind person. He’s a gentle man. He’s funny, he’s upbeat, he’s hopeful, he’s a relentlessly positive guy. It’s an absolute honour to represent Brendan Dassey.”

Nirider was also involved in exonerating the West Memphis Three and says her centre has exonerated more than 50 other people in its 20-year history.

“We know that when you lose round one of the appeal, it’s just round one. There’s gonna be a round two, and there’s gonna be a round three if we need to go that far. We’ve had cases where you can exonerate somebody within a year, we’ve had cases where it takes five years, ten years, 15 years. You just keep fighting because you know the truth will come out.”

“We’re continuing the fight and I can’t wait to see him walk out those doors.”


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