What ‘Making a Murderer’ Taught Us About False Confessions by Juveniles

Youths are more likely than adults to confess to crimes they didn't commit.

Brendan Dassey in court. (Photo: YouTube)

Jan 6, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

As the fascination sparked by the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer grows, most of the theories being shared have centered on the guilt or innocence of its subject, Steven Avery. Avery, a poor Wisconsin man who was wrongfully convicted of and incarcerated for rape, was then convicted of murder after his exoneration. The series' 10 episodes revolve around that conviction and his defense lawyer’s theories about police and prosecutors colluding against Avery.

Amid the chaos of the Avery case comes a confession by his nephew, Brendan Dassey, of his alleged role in the rape and murder of Theresa Halbach. Video footage of Dassey’s multiple interrogations—which took place without his lawyer or parents—show him being fed information about the case and urged to “tell the truth” when he denies any knowledge of Halbach’s death or involvement in the crime. Dassey was convicted in 2007.

It might be difficult to imagine why anyone would confess to a heinous crime he or she didn’t commit, but juveniles are especially likely to do so. A study by researchers at Penn State of 340 exonerations since 1989 found that while 13 percent of adults wrongly confessed, 42 percent of juvenile exonerees gave a false confession. Kids between 12 and 15 were even more likely than 16- and 17-year-olds to falsely confess, according to the study.

“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,” Steven Drizin, one of the lawyers representing Dassey, told NBC News on Tuesday.

The state has denied that any inappropriate tactics were used during the interrogations.

Drizin and his team are awaiting a judge’s ruling on their arguments that Dassey’s confession was coerced and that he was wrongfully imprisoned in 2005.

In a separate study of 193 male offenders between 14 and 17, more than one-third reported making false confessions to police or prosecutors.

Dassey, who was 16 at the time of his confession, has an I.Q. of between 69 and 73 and was taking special education classes. An I.Q. of 70 is considered the legal cutoff indicating an intellectual disability in many states, according to The Innocence Project, a legal organization that works to exonerate the wrongfully convicted. Mentally ill or intellectually disabled people are also more likely than the rest of the population to confess to crimes they didn’t commit.

"People need to understand that juvenile suspects are especially vulnerable in the interrogation room," lead researcher Lindsay Malloy told Medical Xpress, a health news service. "The ways in which we question youth can have potentially devastating consequences in some cases."