In the Netflix documentary series Making a Murder, filmmakers alleged that police and prosecutors in a murder/rape case in a rural Wisconsin county coerced a confession from a 16-year-old child with extremely low intelligence. The series attracted international interest and will be back for a second season.
The filmmakers will have plenty more ground to cover, as there continue to be procedural developments in the case. In this post, we will discuss how true-crime documentaries reflect the ongoing problem of wrongful conviction in the U.S. justice system.
False promises of leniency
In a post earlier this year, we noted that a federal magistrate judge who found that police had violated the constitutional rights of the 16-year-old, Stephen Dassey. Police did this, the judge found, by making false promises of leniency and using other misleading tactics to extract a confession from a juvenile with limited cognitive ability.
A federal appeals court has upheld that ruling. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held that Dassey’s conviction must be overturned because his confession was not voluntary.
But Stephen Dassey is not out of prison yet. Wisconsin authorities have appealed the decision of the three-judge panel to the full Seventh Circuit, which consists of 11 active judges. The state contends the interrogation techniques used to obtain a confession from Dassey were appropriate.
Another Netflix series, The Confession Tapes
The Dassey case contains particularly troublesome allegations of law enforcement overreaching. But Making a Murderer is not the only Netflix series that seeks to document the problem of false confessions.
In a new series called The Confession Tapes that has just been released, filmmakers explore a case here in the Northwest involving two teenagers (both 19) who were accused of murdering the parents and sister of one of the teenagers in 1994. The episodes are entitled “True East.”
Authorities in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue brought murder charges after the two young gave statements to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). The RCMP allegedly engaged in the tactic of befriending the two young men and contriving a scenario to get them to confess to the murders they were suspected of.
The two men were tried for murder in 2004 and convicted murder despite the absence of forensic evidence that they did it.
Shining a light on the problem of false confessions
Cases like these are shining a cinematic light on the problem of false confessions, which are part of the even larger problem of wrongful convictions. Such convictions do not have to go unchallenged – and Netflix documentaries are helping to get that word out.