False Confessions Like Brendan Dassey's Are Common Among Exonerated Juveniles

Minors are psychologically susceptible to being coerced into false confessions and yet frequently interrogated without parents or lawyers around.



New details about the case against Steven Avery keep emerging as U.S. audiences flock to Making a Murderer, the Netflix series documenting Avery's path from wrongfully convicted inmate to free man suing the government to suspect in a violent murder and possible target of malicious cop conspiracy. Despite popular petitions calling for Avery's pardon, some are now suggesting that Avery is both guilty of murder and the victim of planted evidence. Yet whether Avery is guilty or innocent, the confession of his alleged co-perpetrator, nephew Brendan Dassey, seems undeniably coerced by the Manitowoc County police. 

We know this thanks to videotaped recordings of the March 2006 interviews—recordings that likely wouldn't have happened had Dassey been questioned a year earlier. But in July 2005, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that police must electronically record all interrogations of minors. 

In Dassey's taped interrogation, detectives feed the then-16-year-old info about the crime, a crime which he's also been hearing sensationalistic info about in local news for several days. Dassey, an intellectually challenged teen being questioned about rape and murder, has no parent or lawyer present. When he disputes the detectives' version of events, they tell him to stop lying. When he confirms them they coax him on, telling him they already know the truth and if he just says it they'll let him be. He won't get in trouble. They'll help.

The extent to which Dassey doesn't understand the seriousness of what he's doing is made most clear when, after "confessing" to rape, slitting a woman's throat, and helping burn her body, Dassey asks detectives how much longer this will take because he has a school project to turn in during afternoon period. He thinks he'll be able to just get up and go back to school.  

That someone could confess to horrific things they did not do seems outside the realm of imagination for most people. But false confessions aren't all that uncommon in our criminal justice system. According to an Innocence Project analysis of 225 wrongful-conviction cases cleared by DNA evidence, 23 percent were based on false confessions. Data from the National Registry of Exonerations places false confessions at the root of 13 percent of all exonerations, with the highest rate (22 percent) for homicide cases. False confessions were a factor in eight percent of exonerations for sexual assault.

For juveniles, the false confession rate is even higher.A 2005 analysis of 340 exonerations found 42 percent of juvenile cases involved false confessions. A 2013 analysis from the National Registry of Exonerations put the percentage of juvenile exonerations involving false confession at 38 percent.

A Huffington Post roundup of false-confession news from 2015 shows case after case where those who confessed were teenagers. There's Bobby Johnson, who in September was exonerated after falsely confessing to murder at age 16 and spending 9 years in prison. There's Davontae Sanford, who was just 14 when he confessed to a quadruple murder at a crack house and has spent nearly a decade in prison although a hitman guilty of at least eight other murders also took credit for these crimes. The Center on Wrongful Convictions and Michigan's Innocence Clinic have been petitioning for a new trial for Sanford.  

In December, Donovan Allen was exonerated by DNA evidence, becoming the 334th American exonerated by DNA. In 1990, Allen, then 18, falsely confessed to the murder of his mom. 

There are many psychological reasons why minors are succeptible to being coerced into false confessions, but one practical factor that shouldn't be discounted is improper interrogation practices. An 2014 paper in Law and Human Behavior analyzed 57 teen interrogations from 17 different police jurisdictions and found a parent present just 12 percent of the time and a lawyer present for none.

False confessions "are consistently one of the leading, yet most misunderstood, causes of error in the American legal system and thus remain one of the most prejudicial sources of false evidence that lead to wrongful convictions," writes University of San Francisco law professor Richard A. Leo in a 2009 paper. Yet "despite substantial documentation and analysis by scholars, the phenomenon of police-induced false confessions remains counterintuitive to most people," who believe in "the myth of psychological interrogation: that an innocent person will not falsely confess to police unless he is physically tortured or mentally ill."

Leo suggests that mandatory recording of all criminal interrogations is the best way to combat coerced confessions, while also recommending improving police training about false confessions, putting time limits on interrogations, and setting better standards for interrogating minors. "Such reforms, however, are likely to occur slowly in the United States," concludes Leo. "American law enforcement … remains steeped in the use of investigative methods and interrogation techniques that continue" to produce false confessions.

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  1. You simply cannot take these tools away from law enforcement and expect them to get their clearance rates.

    1. (takes deep breath) The Constitution is not a suicide pact where there’s smoke there’s fire new professionalism if you haven’t done anything wrong you have nothing to fear do you want possible rapists out on the streets where they can find your children if only one life is saved it will all have been worth it.

      1. You left out “totality of circs.”

        1. What are furtive movements, chopped liver?

      1. THAT’S EUGENE.

      2. This is the more appropriate video from The Wire.

  2. What really frosts my ass about this kind of sloppy police work is the cavalier attitude towards finding the real criminal. The most benefit of the doubt I can give cops is to assume that most of those they frame are scumbags and probably deserve some jail time anyway. But I cannot forgive them for not giving a shit that the real criminals get off scot-free.

    1. Look at the incentives. They have ZERO fucking incentive to get actual criminals off the street. They have every incentive to close the case as soon as possible, actual guilt be damned.

      As long as these incentives are in place, nothing will change.

      1. The police are awarded for closing cases and arrests. If the guy is later acquitted it means nothing. The cop is rewarded fro arresting someone. The way the police investigate crimes is to make a quick determination who they think is guilty based on their initial impression of the case and then spend the rest of their time finding evidence to convict that person. If they have the right person, great. If not, too bad it is no skin off their nose.

        1. Good points, but in direct contradiction to the statist line that a government paycheck transforms malicious, stupid, naive, gullible, and ignorant people into noble civil servants.

          God I hate statists. The most evil people possible.

          1. The worst part of the system is not that evil people do bad things, though that happens. The worst part is that otherwise good and well meaning people do horribly evil things that they system allows and encourages them to rationalize as doing good. Most cops who frame someone don’t think the person is innocent. They convince themselves the person is guilty and they are doing the right thing by taking them off the streets. That is what real evil looks like.

          2. Status are even worse than the Jooz.

        2. People should be more vengeful. Cop knowingly railroaded you and you serve ten years? Maybe that cop should lose an arm or a leg over it.

  3. Look, the cops have to arrest *someone*. What do you care if it’s the wrong guy? If they actually have to go work, they might not come home safely at night. Is that what you want?

    1. I’ve met cops who actually seem to believe that they have to arrest someone, even if it’s the victim.

      1. That’s why it is always a bad idea to ask them for help. Because their job is not to help people. Their job is to issue commands and arrest anyone who doesn’t immediately obey.

      2. I’ve met cops who actually seem to believe that they have to arrest someone, even if it’s the victim.

        Ahh! The Nelson Muntz theorem!

  4. Never talk to the police without a lawyer. Ever.

    1. Never talk to the police.

      1. And definitely never call them.

        1. Unless you don’t like your dogs.

          1. Can i call them from my neighbor’s house if i don’t like HIS dog?

            1. Still taking a chance, just having them in the neighborhood significantly lessens the life expectancy of all the dogs on the block.

          2. Or your four year old daughter, in case he misses the dogs and hits her, like that hero from Ohio.

  5. That someone could confess to horrific things they did not do seems outside the realm of imagination for most people.

    I wonder if most people could imagine lying to cover up a crime? This doesn’t seem so much unfathomable as inconsistent with self-perception.

    1. …what? I’m sure most people have little trouble imagining lying to cover up a crime, since just about anyone has probably done it. “What do you mean, officer, I had no idea I was going that fast.”

    2. It is only seems that way to people because they have never dealt with the police or been in the situation where they are accused of a horrible crime.

  6. Police are trained by experts on how to manipulate people into saying things they don’t mean. Even something as simple as voice inflection can trick someone into saying “Yes” to a question by making it clear that it is an affirmative statement, even though the answer is not yes. A cop did that to me once. I heard the word “Yes” come out of my mouth even as I was thinking “No.” Next came the handcuffs.

    1. And people wonder why I have nothing but contempt for the police.

    2. Police are trained by experts on how to manipulate people into saying things they don’t mean.

      This is the high road. The number of times I’ve seen people given two different commands by two officers before being shot I think, at least a portion of the time, you’re being too generous.

        1. So, the Snoats Brothers… Good cop candidates, or bad?


  7. If people knew how the police obtain confessions, they would be appalled and never believe another confession again. Here is how it is done. They take a person in a room alone and after reading them their rights tell them they don’t have to talk but if they do it would be best for them. This causes people to waive their rights and think they can talk their way out of it. Then the police proceed to lie and tell the person they have all of this evidence against them and they are going to be convicted regardless of whether they say anything. The Supreme Court has said that it is okay for police to lie during an interrogation.

    After telling these lies, the police lie some more and tell the person that their only hope for leniency is to confess. The person then makes the rational conclusion that they are screwed anyway and are better off confessing to the crime in hopes of lessening the punishment.

    This is how it really happens hundreds if not thousands of times every day in this country.

    1. Another sad and infuriating aspect of this is when the suspect doesn’t realize the police are lying. The cops swear blind that they have multiple witnesses and video, and helpfully ask ‘is there a history of mental illness in your family? Maybe you had a ‘blackout’ episode, etc…’

      They actually come to believe that it did happen and that they are ‘crazy’ because they trust the cops and don’t realize they lie like this.

      I’ve watched a man go from tearfully saying ‘I don’t remember none of it, but they got me on video a doing it.’ to anger when he learned that they lied, to being completely broken when he found out that it was perfectly legal for them to do that and feeling that it was pointless to fight since they could ‘just lie some more’ anyway.

    1. I watch it twice a year. I get a rush out of it.

      1. It’s like a Christmas Carol for libertarianism.

  8. I’ve seen enough cop shows to know that they were all probably guilty of something.

  9. He is 100% guilty but he should not have been convicted. The police framed a guilty man.

  10. OT: James Taranto mentioned Reason in his Fox Butterfield item for this “Dog Bites Man” headline.

    “Hillary Clinton Will Win the Democratic Nomination but Is an Awful Candidate”

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