More on ‘Making a Murderer’: FAQs on the problem of false confessions

| Feb 27, 2017 | Post-conviction Relief |

A lot has happened in the Making a Murderer case since we wrote about it last year.

At the time of our August 23 post, a federal magistrate judge had just overturned the rape-and-murder conviction of Brendan Dassey, a 16-year-old boy with very limited intelligence. The judge ruled that investigators had violated Dassey’s constitutional rights by coercing his confession.

The ruling came after filmmakers from the Netflix documentary Making a Murder called international attention to the procedural problems in the case.

Dassey isn’t out of prison yet, however. Wisconsin authorities are appealing the magistrate’s ruling. Earlier this month, a federal appeals court in Chicago heard oral arguments in the case.

In this post, we will address some frequently asked questions about false confessions.

Are police required to videotape interrogations?

In Wisconsin, whether the Making a Murderer case is playing out, the answer is yes, for juveniles. In 2005, about ten months before Dassey’s confession, the Wisconsin Supreme Court held that electronic records are required when police interrogate minors.

How could someone confess to terrible things they didn’t do?

Police use psychological techniques that can make anyone break down. To be sure, Dassey was particularly vulnerable because of his young age and low IQ. But even adults with high intelligence can succumb to coercive tactics, such as when investigators claim they “already know” what happened and claim they merely want to help.

Is there data available on false convictions caused by coerced confessions?

Yes. The Innocence Project, a respected advocacy group that challenges wrongful convictions, reviewed 225 cases of exonerations due to DNA evidence. In those cases, 23 percent (nearly 1 in 4) of the convictions were the result of false confessions.

The rate of false confessions is even higher among minors. In juvenile cases, the percentage of wrongful convictions attributable to false confessions may be around 40 percent.