Brendan Dassey’s Confession Highlights Importance of Recording Interrogations
For millions of people, the Netflix series
Making a Murderer
has served as a shocking eye-opener to some of the more devastating flaws within our country’s criminal justice system. For those who are unfamiliar with it, the series details the 2007 convictions of Steven Avery and his teenage nephew Brendan Dassey for the 2005 murder of 25-year-old Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. While the series focuses on the Avery and Dassey cases exclusively, in a broader sense it reveals the widespread pitfalls of tunnel vision within criminal investigations, especially in terms of how they can skew interrogation practices, and it provides a key lesson as to why the practice of electronically recording interrogations should be mandated across the country.
If you have not yet watched the series, one of the biggest twists in the series is Dassey’s confession. When prosecutor Ken Kratz calls a press conference to announce that the 16-year-old was taken into custody after admitting to Avery’s and his involvement in the death of Halbach, it seems like the smoking gun in the case. But when we see the tapes of Dassey’s interrogation, a different story emerges.
Dassey, who has an IQ in the low 70s (an average IQ is 100), is pulled out of school by two investigators and interrogated for several hours without a parent or attorney present. The interrogators, Department of Justice investigator Tom Fassbender and Calumet Sheriff’s Sgt. Mark Wiegert, push Dassey for details of the crime, and at times he seems to be guessing what they want to hear.
For example, Fassbender and Wiegert ask Dassey what happened to Halbach’s head, and he says that Steven cut off her hair. The detectives keep pressing, and he says that Avery punched her, and pressed further he says that he cut her. Frustrated, Wiegert finally says, “I’m just going to come out and ask you. Who shot her in the head?” Dassey says that Avery did. “Why didn’t you tell us that?” asks one of the investigators. “ ’Cause I couldn’t think of it,” Dassey replies.
During closing arguments, the prosecution says, “People who are innocent don’t confess.” But, that’s not true, especially when it comes to juveniles. False confessions played a role in 28 percent of the nation’s 337 wrongful convictions overturned with DNA, and in 65 percent of exonerations involving minors. Suggestibility, obedience to authority and immature decision-making abilities make juveniles particularly susceptible to interrogations designed to elicit confessions from adults. While juveniles and people with mental limitations are particularly vulnerable, mentally capable adults have also falsely confessed to crimes they did not commit. Dassey’s case shows how powerful a confession can be to a jury; he was convicted despite a lack of physical evidence and the recantation of a key witness linking him to the crime.
Legal practitioners, academics and law enforcement have endorsed electronic recording of interrogations in their entirety as a safeguard against wrongful convictions stemming from false confessions. By creating transparency and accountability, the practice deters the use of illegal or abusive interrogation techniques and ensures the protection of defendants’ rights. It also benefits law enforcement by removing any doubts about the voluntariness of authentic confessions and protecting officers against frivolous allegations of misconduct.
Dassey’s interrogation was one of the first to be recorded in the state of Wisconsin. In 2005 the state Supreme Court ruled that juvenile interrogations must be electronically recorded, and the following year the state legislature passed a law extending this requirement to all felony cases. Currently, 19 states require electronic recording of interrogations and federal agencies including the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigations, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have implemented the practice.
Of course, a videotaped interrogation only benefits a defendant if it is used properly. Courts assess voluntariness when deciding whether a confession can be admitted into evidence, and the judge ruled that Dassey’s confession was voluntary and could be heard by jurors. However, the jury didn’t see the last hour and a half of the interrogation tape, including Dassey telling his mother during a break that “they got into my head,” which could have raised doubts about the credibility of his confession.
But at least there is an enduring record of what occurred during the interrogation, which may help Dassey in his appeals. (Dassey is now being represented by the
Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth
.) Without video it would be his word against the interrogators. For example, we would have thought that Dassey brought up that Halbach was shot in the head, when it was really the police who first mentioned it.
While we may never know what really happened in this case, thanks to the videotape at least we know what happened during Dassey’s interrogation. This year the Innocence Project is working in several states to pass laws that would require police to record custodial interrogations, and you can help by telling your state representatives that you support this reform. To find out if your state currently requires recording of interrogations click
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