Making a Murderer: Children’s Susceptibility to Giving False Confessions

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During the last few months, many have watched the Netflix series Making A Murderer, which was released last December. The documentary project chronicles the story of Steven Avery, who was imprisoned for an incident with convictions in both sexual assault and attempted murder. After 18 years of being confined, DNA advances helped prove Avery’s innocence, leading to his exoneration in 2003. Two years later, however, Avery was arrested and eventually convicted for a different crime, the murder of Teresa Halbach. Making A Murderer follows the progression of that second crime and questions the validity of the criminal justice system.

A key component in securing Avery’s conviction for Halbach’s murder was the alleged confession of his then 16 year-old nephew Brendan Dassey. For his first interrogation, Brendan was pulled out of school. He was then questioned alone for hours by Department of Justice investigator Tom Fassbender and Calumet Sheriff’s Sergeant Mark Wiegert, without access to a parent or an attorney. Clips from several different interrogations of Brendan by those two individuals and an additional investigator, Michael O’Kelly, are included within the series. The snippets not only raise questions regarding the validity of Brendan’s confessions, but they also pose concerns about the examination tactics used on minors.

During the course of several interviews, the video clips reveal that Brendan changed his story several times. Sometimes he denied any wrongdoing, while other times agreeing to his participation in Halbach’s murder. Part of this wavering might be attributed to the investigators’ leading questions. An example is when Fassbender and Wiegert were trying to elicit an important detail of the murder: that the victim had been shot in the head. After continually asking Brendan what he and Avery did to Halbach, the investigator becomes more specific and asks what was done to her head. Brendan appears to be guessing at what he is supposed to answer, first offering that they punched her and cut her. However, after growing impatient, one of the detectives bluntly asks Brendan who shot her in the head. After Brendan blames his uncle, he is asked why he had not just stated that, to which he responds, “[be]cause I couldn’t think of it.”

At a separate interrogation with O’Kelly, Brendan is again pressed for details. Although he initially denies any wrongdoing, Brendan eventually begins to “cooperate.” During that time lapse between Brendan’s denial and confession, O’Kelly stresses that Brendan cannot be helped unless he tells the truth, asks whether Brendan wants to spend “the rest of [his] life in jail,” and emphasizes the need for Brendan to be sorry for what he did. Additionally, O’Kelly not only laid out photographs related to the crime on the table in front of Brendan, but he also instructed Brendan to draw pictures about what allegedly occurred during the crime. All of these actions, especially in the aggregate, create great pressure for a child to provide his “confession.”

One might contend that a 16-year old teenager is old enough to understand the repercussions of such grave admissions and thus will not divulge any false information. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Rather, young and even teen-aged children are more susceptible to giving false confessions than adults. In addition to being more vulnerable to succumbing to interrogation tactics, they are also more likely to want to please authority figures by telling them what they think they want to hear. Furthermore, many times children’s desire to go home or talk to their parent is leveraged against them. In one of his examinations, one of the interrogators begins by stating Brendan’s mom had told him her son would be honest with them and that Brendan should not “let [his] mom down.”

Other factors may further increase a child’s propensity to give a false confession. For example, a child’s ability to understand what is happening may greatly impact their willingness to participate. Kids who look exactly the same may have completely different capacities to understand the situation. Age alone does not accurately indicate a child’s comprehension. Children vary widely in their past experiences and their education, which can greatly alter their experience in an interrogation by limiting their comprehension of the interrogator’s vocabulary, for instance. Brendan reportedly has a below average IQ and had never been in trouble of any sort prior to this incident, indicating he was not likely to be savvy with questionings about alleged wrongdoings.

Fortunately, Brendan’s interrogations were videotaped and thus help illustrate the pitfalls of questioning children fairly. When undertaking this feat, it is not only essential to ensure that the child understands his or her Miranda rights—to remain silent and obtain an attorney—but it is equally important to question a child in a manner that does not impose unfair pressures.

Brendan Dassey’s case consequently serves as a reminder that although filming the questioning of a child is extremely important, it is an insufficient safeguard to guarantee that children are protected against self-incrimination or against giving false confessions that are later used against them for their prosecution.

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