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Interrogation, coercion, and false confessions: The case of Brendan Dassey

In December 2015, Netflix brought the justice system to the forefront of the public consciousness with its award-winning documentary Making a Murderer. The 10-episode serialization followed the story of Steven Avery – a Wisconsin man who was wrongfully convicted of rape in 1985, spent 18 years in prison before being exonerated, and was then arrested and ultimately convicted for the murder of Teresa Halbach in 2005. While the documentary focuses primarily on Steven Avery as the main suspect, Making a Murderer also highlighted a lesser-known element of the case: the confession and conviction of Brendan Dassey, Avery’s nephew. Although there’s a lot to analyze in this case, we focus here on a nagging question – did Brendan Dassey give a false confession?

Dassey’s involvement in the case was little understood until Netflix’s deep dive into the case, but has emerged as one of the most scrutinized and tragic elements. Briefly, the police focused on Avery as a suspect in the disappearance of a young woman, Teresa Halbach, who was last reported visiting Avery’s Wisconsin residence for work. During the investigation, police found evidence that Avery had abducted Halbach and murdered her on his property*.

During the investigation, the police spoke with Avery’s 16 year old nephew, Brendan Dassey. Dassey lived with his family nearby Avery’s residence, and would often interact with his uncle. At first, Dassey claimed to know nothing about Halbach or her disappearance. Then, after four interrogations over a two-day period, Dassey confessed to a heinous crime – kidnapping, restraining, raping, and shooting Teresa Halbach before burning her body, with Steven Avery.

After confessing in the final interrogation, Dassey recanted his confession. He claimed the crime he described came from a book he had read, and he did not see, let alone murder, Halbach. Regardless of the recantation, and the lack of physical evidence tying Dassey to the crime, the DA charged Dassey and Avery for the murder of Halbach. After having his first lawyer dismissed by the court for choosing not to be present during the interrogations, Dassey was represented by two public defenders. On April 25th, 2007, Dassey was found guilty of homicide, rape, and mutilation of a corpse. As a 17 year old, he was sentenced to life in prison.

In 2010, Dassey began appealing his case, claiming his confession was involuntary and his first lawyer failed to adequately represent him. However, these appeals fell on deaf ears. Then, in 2015, a federal district judge agreed with Dassey and ordered him released – a decision upheld by a panel of the 7th Circuit. In December 2017, the full 7th Circuit reversed, saying Dassey’s confession met the legal standard for voluntariness.

Regardless of whether Dassey’s confession was obtained in a way that would make it admissible as evidence, there is reason for concern that Dassey falsely confessed.  We know from scores of real-world cases, supplemented by laboratory experiments, that people sometimes confess to crimes they didn’t commit. We can’t say for sure if Dassey’s confession is false, but there are many details about Dassey’s case that should make us skeptical about it. Here’s why.


We know that a combination of factors makes adolescents and people with intellectual impairments among those at increased risk for falsely confessing 1,2. Their lack of familiarity with the legal system means that they may not understand their rights, know the limits of the authority the police, and appreciate the consequences of confessing. Dassey had been previously diagnosed with learning impairments, and his IQ was tested to be below average. Indeed, in his interrogation, he seemingly does not understand the consequences of telling the police that he murdered and raped Halbach. After confessing, Dassey asked if he would be back in time to work on a project at school. When the police wanted to interview him again because of inconsistencies in his story, Dassey asked his mother, “What does ‘inconsistent’ mean?” Clearly, Dassey has trouble understanding why he is talking to the police – and that by saying he murdered Halbach, he would be arrested.

Another contributing factor for false confessions is based the average person’s reliance on other people, especially authority figures, to sometimes tell us or sometimes show us what to do. Less intelligent people or those with intellectual impairments can be even more susceptible to suggestions from authority figures 1,2,3. Authority figures can frequently get people – even healthy, intelligent adults – to do things they normally would not do 1,2,4,5. In many situations, conformity and obedience are useful for keeping interactions smooth and keeping organizations running – but in interrogations, those same tendencies can lead people into dangerous situations. Complying with authority can lead people to stay in an interrogation room even when they are technically legally free to leave. And it can also lead people to succumb to the powerful social influence of common interrogation tactics 6.

Detectives Wiegert and Fassbender repeatedly emphasize to Dassey that they are “in his corner.” They also say that “being honest” will help him, and they say it’s not his fault if Avery threatened him or made him murder Teresa. In interrogations, it’s common for the police to suggest that a crime was not the suspect’s fault – that it was the fault of his or her accomplices or the fault of the victim. Tactics like this are called “minimization” because they minimize the role of the suspect in the crime or minimize how serious the crime seems 7.

Psychologists have studied minimization in laboratory experiments that try to simulate many of the conditions of real-world interrogations, and found the tactic can increase the rate of false confessions 8. For example in some studies, researchers invite college students to the lab under the pretense of study where they need to complete a series of very difficult logic problems. Half way through the logic tests, however, the researchers give some of the students a chance to cheat, and they usually take the opportunity. Later, the researcher accuses the student of cheating (regardless of whether they actually cheated) and explains there are academic penalties for breaking university regulations so that the students take the situation seriously. At this point, the researcher questions the student about the cheating, using the same kinds of tactics the police use on real suspects. But because this is happening under the controlled conditions of a laboratory, we know who is really innocent and who is guilty afterwards – so when a student confesses, we know whether it’s true or false. In studies that use this procedure, researchers reliably find that minimization tactics, like that ones that were used on Brendan Dassey, make more guilty people confess – but they also make a lot more innocent people confess, too 9.

Why does minimization make people confess? It’s possible that minimization puts people in a squeeze, and it makes people feel as if confessing is a way out of that squeeze. Normally, minimization tactics begin with a “positive direct confrontation” – a statement that the interrogator knows the suspect is guilty, knows what happened, and just wants to clear up details (such as why the crime happened) 7. Then a “minimizing theme” is developed – that is, a suggested narrative or idea that is repeated and reinforced in the interrogation. This theme often involves emphasizing that it isn’t the suspect’s fault and downplaying the seriousness of the crime so that it doesn’t seem like a big deal to confess. This is exactly what happened in Dassey’s interrogation: Wiegert and Fassbender repeatedly tell Dassey they know everything that happened, and they tell him that “it will be okay” because it wasn’t his fault. This theme is combined with strong and repeated statements that they already know what happened (even though they don’t). Interrogators are often trained to strongly reject denials from a suspect, as Wiegert and Fassbender do in their questioning of Dassey.  This rejection of denails can wear down an innocent person, who is repeatedly told to “be honest” and “not to lie” whenever they (truthfully) deny involvement. This combination – the minimizing theme and the strong rejection of denials – makes confessing seem like a better and better idea over time.  This could make even a savvy, cogent adult falsely confess – and indeed it has, such as in the case of Darrell Parker.

The problems are compounded because of Dassey’s particular vulnerabilities. Research using experiments similar to the one described above show that adolescents, compared to adults, are more likely to confess, more likely to falsely confess, and less likely to understand their constitutional rights during an interrogation 1,10. Similarly, research on DNA exoneration cases demonstrates those with intellectual disabilities are overrepresented in false confession cases 2. They struggle to understand their rights and are more likely to give in to leading questions.

The dissenting opinion of the full 7th Circuit’s review points out a particularly egregious example of how Dassey was at particularly heightened risk. Wiegert and Fassbender tell Dassey that “being ‘honest’ will allow him to go ‘free.’ “Although an adult of average intelligence might recognize the Biblical allusion, see John 8:32 (“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”), Dassey was not an adult and not of average intelligence. Instead, he was a mentally limited teenager who did not understand abstractions,” (pg. 56). While “being honest will allow you to go free” is a permitted (although problematic) form of minimization under normal circumstances, the detectives and 7th Circuit majority did not properly account for the fact that Dassey was not under normal circumstances – and that Dassey could falsely confess more easily than an intellectually-able adult.

The majority opinion (and the investigators and prosecutors) argue that Dassey’s confession is voluntary in part because it draws on accurate knowledge from a crime that the perpetrator would know – for example, Halbach’s cause of death, that her license plates had been removed, or that her remains were found in a bonfire pit.** But Dassey including this evidence in his confession is not indicative of guilt, because nearly all such knowledge was either fed to him during an interrogation, or was publically reported. Researchers have closely examined confessions that have been proven to be false with DNA evidence, and they find that well over 90% of these false confessions contain details that supposedly only the perpetrator (and the police) could have known 11,12. We currently have little empirical research on why so many false confessions contain so many accurate details – but one proposed method is called “contamination,” by which police divulge accurate details during questioning, and the suspect later repeats them back in a confession. Alternatively, suggestive questioning can lead a suspect to speculate and guess details of the crime, many of which might turn out to be accurate. Indeed, we see signs of both these things happening in Dassey’s interrogation.

In Dassey’s case, for example, the detectives ask Brendan several times what happened to Halbach’s head, wanting him to divulge that he shot her. However, Dassey never supplied that information on his own and investigator eventually asked, “I’m just gonna come out and ask you. Who shot her in the head?” Additionally, Dassey offers some details of the crime that do not conform with the physical evidence – such as claiming that he raped her – and fails to include some facts supported by the evidence – such as initially denying Halbach was ever in the garage. All in all, Dassey fails to accurately describe the crime on his own, and it is only after being asked the same question over and over that he finally provides the responses the investigators want to hear, which were in many cases answers they themselves provided.

In sum, the only evidence linking Dassey to the case was his confession – no physical evidence whatsoever. Looking at his confession and interrogation tapes, it is totally plausible that it was given by an innocent person. Dassey is only able to provide details about the crime because the detectives gave him the answers or had him guess at the answers until he got it “right.” While your average person would be at risk for a false confession under the circumstances, Dassey’s age and intelligence put him at an even greater risk for falsely confessing.

Ultimately, only Brendan Dassey and Steven Avery (and, if they are innocent, the actual perpetrator) know whether Dassey’s confession is true. But based on dozens of psychology studies, we know that Dassey was questioned under conditions highly prone to producing false confessions. Should Dassey continue to fight his conviction, his next step would be the United States Supreme Court. Perhaps there the risks and interrogation tactics that were ignored in convicting Dassey will be heavily scrutinized. If so, we hope that the psychology of false confessions will help the courts not only in granting relief for Dassey, but providing more protections against false confessions in the future.

Will Crozier and Timothy Luke wrote this post.

Notes

*Although Avery was convicted of the murder, Making a Murderer highlighted many inconsistencies in the evidence against Avery. Avery continues to fight his conviction in the legal system. While Avery’s case is interesting in and of itself, we are not drawing any conclusions about Avery’s involvement or guilt in this post, focusing instead on Dassey.

**In their dissent, Wood, Rovner, and Williams pick up on this issue, and include a table that describes the “incriminating evidence” offered and why it is not critical and indicative of guilt.

Further reading

Kassin, S. M., Redlich, A. D., Alceste, F., & Luke, T. J. (2018). On the general acceptance of confessions research: Opinions of the scientific community. American Psychologist, 73, 63-80.

References

[1] Kassin, S. M., Drizin, S. A., Grisso, T., Gudjonsson, G. H., Leo, R. A., & Redlich, A. D. (2010). Police-induced confessions: Risk factors and recommendations. Law and Human Behavior, 34, 3-38.
[2] Gudjonsson, G. H. (2003). The psychology of interrogations and confessions: A handbook. Chichester, England: Wiley.
[3] Gudjonsson, G. H., & Clare, I. C. H. (1995). The relationship between confabulation and intellectual ability, memory, interrogative suggestibility, and acquiescence. Personality and Individual Differences, 3, 333–338.
[4] Haslam, N., Loughnan, S., & Perry, G. (2014). Meta-Milgram: An empirical synthesis of the obedience experiments. PloS one, 9(4), e93927.
[5] Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human Relations, 18, 57-76.
[6] Kassin, S. M. (2005). On the psychology of confessions: does innocence put innocents at risk? The American Psychologist, 60, 215-228.
[7] Kassin, S. M., & McNall, K. (1991). Police Interrogations and Confessions: Communicating Promises and Threats by Pragmatic Implications. Law and Human Behavior, 15, 233-251.
[8] Russano, M. B., Meissner, C. A., Narchet, F. M., & Kassin, S. M. (2005). Investigating true and false confessions within a novel experimental paradigm. Psychological Science, 16, 481-486.
[9] Meissner, C. A., Redlich, A. D., Michael, S. W., Evans, J. R., Camilletti, C. R., Bhatt, S., & Brandon, S. (2014). Accusatorial and information-gathering interrogation methods and their effects on true and false confessions: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Experimental Criminology, 10, 459-486.
[10] Redlich, A. D., Silverman, M., Chen, J., & Steiner, H. (2004). The police interrogation of children and adolescents. In Interrogations, confessions, and entrapment (pp. 107-125). Springer, Boston, MA.
[11] Garrett, B. L. (2015). Contaminated confessions revisited. Virginia Law Review, 395-454.
[12] Garrett, B. L. (2010). The substance of false confessions. Stanford Law Review, 1051-1118.

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