The Netflix documentary series, “Making a Murderer,” inspired millions of viewers to follow controversial conviction cases in a rural Midwest town. Teresa Halbach was murdered in 2005 in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. The TV show highlighted two men who were accused of her murder: Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey.
Brendan Dassey, Steven Avery’s nephew, was 16 at the time when he was interrogated by law enforcement officers about the murder of Teresa Halbach. Two investigators pulled a quiet and contradictory confession from Brendan, which resulted in a conviction and sentence to life in prison. Brendan attempted to appeal the decision which maintained his conviction to the US Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court turned down the plea to hear his case.
Teenage coerced confessions are common
“Making a Murderer” shines light on the issue of coerced confessions, especially in young men and women. False confessions are one of the top reasons for wrongful convictions. Around 25 percent of people who are wrongfully convicted either made an incriminating statement or a false confession that was used to convict them.
A higher proportion of coerced confessions come from teens. Young people are especially vulnerable to coercion, often fearful, susceptible to influence and trusting of authority. In Brendan’s case, he was interrogated for hours alone. The teen did not receive support from a parent or guidance from an attorney. His mental capacity is near the line of an intellectual disability, meaning he may have been especially susceptible to trickery during the interview.
How did it happen?
It is suspected that investigators fed facts about the case to Brendan through a series of questions. Eventually an inconsistent confession was reached as Brendan “guessed” the answers to the investigator’s questions. The conviction was based almost exclusively on his confession. The Supreme Court will decide to hear the motion to suppress the confession. Without it, the case against Brendan would likely fall apart.
The Supreme Court rarely sees single cases based on errors, but some are surprised the popularity of “Making a Murderer” did not sway the justices. Many innocent people who are not in the limelight also wait out their sentences. There are avenues of assistance available for these people, including the appeals process and post-conviction relief.