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How 'Making a Murderer' exposes flaws in juvenile justice system

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Brendan Dassey
Brendan Dassey walks to the courthouse to hear the verdict in his 2007 trial in Manitowoc, Wis. A jury found Dassey guilty of raping a 25-year-old freelance photographer, Teresa Halbach, and helping his uncle kill her and burn her body.
Sue Pischke | AP 2007

The popular Netflix documentary series, "Making a Murderer," has people across the entire country analyzing an almost decade-old Wisconsin murder trial. 

The bulk of the discussions surround the case of Steven Avery, who was previously wrongfully convicted of rape and served 18 years in person. Just two years after his release, he was arrested for the murder of Teresa Halbach.

It's the case of Brendan Dassey, Avery's then 16-year-old nephew, however, that is raising eyebrows in the world of juvenile justice. Dassey was also convicted of Halbach's murder.

The documentary highlights the controversial interrogation techniques officers used with Dassey, who has a below-average IQ.

Laura Nirider, a law professor and the project director at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern School of Law, is one of a team of lawyers that has taken up Dassey's case. 

She joined MPR New host Kerri Miller to discuss false confessions and wrongful convictions of youth — a population that is especially vulnerable to pressure under investigation. 

Highlights

On the interrogation footage show in "Making a Murderer"

Dassey, Nirider said, was questioned several times in a very short period of time. "What you see in the series is the culmination of the fourth time Brendan has been questioned in 48 hours."

On what officers did — and did not — tell Dassey's mother

"When the interrogators called Brendan's mother on March 1, and told her that they wanted to speak to him, they did not tell her why, which seems to be an important part of the story," Nirider said. "Any parent out there would have an immediate instinct: 'If the police want to speak to my child, I want to know why.'"

...

"But the police did not tell Brendan's mother why they were interested in Brendan. They did not tell her that he was a suspect in a sexual assault and murder case, instead they just said: 'We want to talk to him.' Without that information, she agreed. She allowed Brendan to be questioned without her present, without an attorney present."

On how Dassey's lower-than-average IQ affected the interrogation

"It's important to understand [Dassey's intellectual disabilities] because, in the context of interrogation, people being interrogated are making life-altering decisions about the things they say to police. What you say when you're in that interrogation room can quite literally end your life in some states, and result in a life sentence, as it did for Brendan, in other states."

"To make those kinds of judgments, especially without the aid of a lawyer or a parent, for somebody like Brendan, is too consequential. And you can imagine for somebody with intellectual limitations, who may not understand what's at stake in making those kinds of decisions — whether to speak to the police, whether to invoke one's Miranda rights — that's a huge disadvantage."

On how Dassey confessed

"To understand why Brendan confessed, you have to understand how police interrogations work. It follows a very specific pattern in almost all cases: Officers come into the interrogation room, and they confront the witness with their firm belief that that person is guilty. They confront that person with evidence — either real or manufactured — of their guilt, and they convince that person that there is no way that that person is going to convince the officers that they're innocent."

"Once someone in Brendan's position is reduced down to a sense of hopelessness ... the officers offer an incentive. They say something just like what we hear [in the series]: 'Look, we already know what happened, and it's going to be okay, we just need to hear it from you.'"

"Under the influence of those kinds of statements, officers get confessions from all kinds of suspects, but the problem with somebody like Brendan, of course, is when he heard the officers saying: 'We already know, it's going to be okay, we just need to hear it from you,' people can too easily think: 'Okay, these officers are saying it's going to be okay, I guess I'll just agree to what they want me to say.' And, of course, it's not actually okay in the end."

On the problem with false confessions and juveniles

"This is not a phenomenon that is limited to juveniles at all," Nirider said. "It is not a phenomenon that's limited to the intellectual-limited at all. These interrogation techniques, these psychological techniques, are powerful."

"The fact of the matter is that each and every one of us has a breaking point, and after we would be subjected to these techniques, over the course of six, seven, eight hours — each one of us stands the chance of giving a false confession."

"Having said that, I do think juveniles are most vulnerable to these kinds of psychological interrogation tactics. We know that juveniles, because of their brain development, because of the way they're caught in the midst growing up, in the midst of neurologically developing, we know that they are less able to assess risks and consequences." 

"We know that they are impulsive when they make decisions, we know that they are vulnerable to pressure. These are traits that every parent out there should recognize — they define the teenage mind. When you put that teenage mind in an interrogation room with officers who say things like: 'We already know what happened, it's gonna be okay, we  just need you to be honest' ... its no surprise that juveniles are more likely then to respond by confessing, even when they in fact had nothing to do with the underlying crime."

On what's next for Dassey's case

"Right now, we have a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus pending in the federal courts in Wisconsin. That's basically legal papers in which we ask the federal courts to review the ways the Wisconsin court handled Brendan's case."

"In particular, we're asking the federal courts to review two constitutional issues in Brendan's case: one issue related to his confession, which we believe was coerced by the interrogators. The second issue is related to attorney [Len] Kachinsky, Brendan's pretrial attorney, and his breaches of the duty of loyalty that he owed to Brendan."

"That federal petition is asking for a new trial for Brendan, and it's been fully briefed for about six months or so. At this point, there's no deadline for the federal court to rule, we're just waiting and hoping at this point."

For the full discussion with Laura Nirider on Brendan Dassey and false confessions, use the audio player above.