‘Making a Murderer,’ and the Huge Problem of False Youth Confessions
Much of the conversation around Making a Murderer, the sensationally popular Netflix documentary series that came out last month, has revolved around the question of guilt or innocence. The filmmakers portrayed a miscarriage of justice at every level, from the police officers who repeatedly showed up to a crime scene they weren’t involved with, to the prosecutor who said it “shouldn’t matter whether or not” evidence was planted. And while the question of “Did he or didn’t he?” is keeping viewers’ attention, the real value of Making a Murderer is how it reveals that whether or not Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are guilty, the criminal justice system was not equipped to give them a fair trial.
Those systemic injustices are the true story of Making a Murderer. And one of them — the seemingly coerced confession from a juvenile, obtained without a lawyer and used to put 16-year-old Brendan Dassey in prison for life — is a practice so common that one study found that almost half of juveniles who were later exonerated had given false confessions.
“The tactics that you see on the [Dassey] interrogation tape are all too common,” Dassey’s attorney, Laura H. Nirider, tells Rolling Stone. (Nirider is a project director at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth.) “They were designed originally for seasoned adult criminals, and what you see on the tape is them being used on a 16-year-old with intellectual disabilities. As a result, you see these powerful psychological tactics designed for adults absolutely steamroll Brendan.”
Those tactics, explains Barry Feld, author of Kids, Cops, and Confessions: Inside the Interrogation Room, can include confrontation, manipulation, aggressive questioning and lying about evidence. “When they’re used on kids, they can be even more effective,” Feld says. “Kids don’t have the same life experience, the same understanding of their rights or understanding of the legal process.”
Feld says children are even less aware than adults of their Miranda rights — crucially, their right to have a lawyer present while questioned. In his book, he writes that while 80 percent of adults waive their Miranda rights when questioned by police, 92 percent of young people do. “They’ve given up the only protection they have in the interrogation room,” he says. The inherent power discrepancy between children and adults is augmented when the adults are police officers. Added to the fact that the vast majority of states don’t require police to even notify parents that their child is being questioned, and it begins to explain why young people are so disproportionately represented in false confessions.
“When we look at wrongful convictions and DNA exonerations, there’s a strong age skew,” says Feld. “Younger kids are more likely to confess falsely than adults. Within the population of juveniles, 14- and 15-year-olds falsely confess at higher rates than 16- and 17-year-olds.” The same study that found almost half (42 percent) of exonerated juveniles had given false confessions — compared to only 13 percent of exonerated adults — also found that the number was much higher for those under 15. A staggering 69 percent of youth ages 12 to 15 who were exonerated had given false confessions. A different study found that of 125 proven false confessions to murder and rape, 32 percent of them came from juveniles.