This Is Why Police Interrogations Can Lead To False Confessions

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Last week, Brendan Dassey, who shot to fame for his role in Netflix’s documentary series Making a Murderer, had his murder conviction overturned.

The 26-year-old boy was convicted when he was just 17, along with his uncle Steven Avery, for the murder of Teresa Halbach after he confessed to the crime, but a judge ruled last Friday that his confession was coerced.

Dassey’s police interview was uploaded to YouTube and shows the police trying to reassure him that they’re on his side and he should give them the answers that they want to hear, Vice reports.

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The magistrate who overturned the conviction,William Duffin said:

[The interrogators] repeated false promises [that he shouldn’t worry], when considered in conjunction with all relevant factors, most especially Dassey’s age, intellectual deficits, and the absence of a supportive adult, rendered Dassey’s confession involuntary under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.

So why did Dassey confess?

Well, there are standard and upsettingly accepted tactics used by law enforcement to ensure a conviction, including lying to the accused and assuring them they won’t get into trouble if they confess.

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Richard Leo, a professor of law and psychology at the University of San Francisco and a leading researcher on police interrogation practices, claims that ‘police interrogation in America is fundamentally dishonest’.

He explains: 

Police are allowed to lie all the time. They call lying about evidence ‘ruses.’ It’s kind of Orwellian in the sense that it’s not really a ruse. If I’m telling you I’ve got your fingerprints and your DNA and I have a surveillance video… and you’re a kid and you don’t know that police can lie about evidence, you’re thinking, ‘How would I be in a video?’

These lies and manipulations can be used to drive the innocent to confess to crimes they know they didn’t commit.

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It’s known as the Reid Technique and relies on making the accused feel isolated and that there’s no doubt as to their guilt – basically, you presume guilt rather than innocence.

This makes the suspect feel that it’s pointless to assert their innocence and they become hopeless and therefore easier to manipulate – for some a confession is the only way out they can see.

Professor Leo described it as isolating someone and accusing them, then you cut off their denials and confront them with real or made-up evidence before suggesting that a confession may minimise your punishment.

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Steven Drizin, a law professor at Northwestern University and one of Dassey’s appellate attorneys explained that we all have a breaking point, especially teenagers like Dassey.

He said:

Juveniles are especially vulnerable, they tend to make impulsive decisions that focus on short-term rewards rather than long-term consequences… A teenager might confess simply because he thinks that by confessing he can go home.

Here in England, the police can’t lie to suspects and professor Leo has suggested that the Reid Technique, while progressive in the 1940s (it stopped police beating suspects) could be dangerous today, and that in the future suspects should be interviewed, not interrogated.

Juan A Rivera This Is Why Police Interrogations Can Lead To False ConfessionsJuan Riviera - Wikimedia

Dassey is far from the first person to have his conviction overturned because his interrogators used the Reid Technique.

In 2011, Juan Rivera, who was wrongfully convicted of the 1992 rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker, was freed after it emerged police lied to him to secure a confession.


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