Making a Murderer, a ten-part documentary from Netflix, came out at the end of 2015, a year in which the criminal justice system in the United States was widely criticized and endlessly scrutinized. The film has been seen by millions, and it’s generated plenty of controversy. Making a Murderer is the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was released from prison in 2003 after serving eighteen years for a sexual assault that he did not commit. That story alone would have made for a fascinating documentary, but Avery’s first conviction and his exoneration are only where Making a Murderer begins. In 2005, Avery was arrested for the murder of a local photographer, Teresa Halbach, and he was convicted of that murder in 2007. The series also covers the arrest, prosecution, and conviction of Avery’s nephew and alleged murder accomplice, Brendan Dassey, who is a key figure in the story.
After serving 18 years in prison for sexual assault, Avery was exonerated when the DNA in the case was matched to another suspect guilty of other crimes in the region. After Avery was released in 2003, he filed a $36 million civil lawsuit against Manitowoc County and several county officials associated with his first arrest, trial, and conviction. However, soon after filing the lawsuit, he was accused of the murder of Teresa Halbach, a photographer last seen on the Avery family property photographing a minivan that Avery was selling.
THOUSANDS DEMAND A RETRIAL
The corrupted evidence in this case and the stunning behavior of the police and the prosecutors have frankly made it impossible to determine if Avery actually did or did not murder Ms. Halbach. Evidence may have been planted by the police to incriminate Avery in retaliation for filing a lawsuit. The only certainty about the case is that a dubious and problematic confession was coerced from Brendan Dassey. Dassey, who has an IQ of 70, was 16 when he was charged with being Avery’s accomplice. In a videotaped confession after a brutal, four-hour interrogation without a parent or a lawyer present, he told detectives that he raped and brutalized Ms. Halbach at Avery’s insistence, and he then helped Avery kill the young woman. Dassey later retracted his confession, but he was nevertheless convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison. Netflix viewers were shocked by the videotaped interrogation and confession, and thousands have signed a petition demanding a retrial for Dassey.
Step-by-step, Making a Murderer shows viewers why Dassey’s confession could not have been true. He tells a story that, on the basis of the forensic evidence, simply cannot be true. Viewers can clearly see and understand that Dassey’s police interrogators ask leading questions, and the intimidated teen tells the officers precisely what they want to hear. Despite the impossibility of Dassey’s story, his recanted confession nevertheless led to his conviction, although he may not have had any involvement at all in the crime.
FALSE CONFESSIONS ARE COMMON
In fact, about one out five prison inmates who’ve been released after being exonerated by DNA evidence originally made a false confession. In Mississippi, Phillip Bivens spent more than thirty years in prison after confessing to a murder that he did not commit. DNA tests led to his exoneration in 2010 and identified the murderer as a man named Andrew Harris, who has been serving a life sentence for another crime since the mid-1980s. That case inspired novelist John Grisham to write The Confession, a fictional story based on some of the details of the Bivens case.
A case out of New York that’s almost as controversial is the case of Adrian Thomas. In 2008, after his infant son died of a head injury and subsequent infection, police officers spent hours interrogating Thomas and trying to coax a confession from him. They even threatened to arrest his wife for murder if he didn’t confess. Court records indicate that police officers told Thomas 67 times that they believed his son’s injury was an accident, 14 times that he would not be arrested, and eight times that he would be going home if he simply told the truth. Instead, Thomas was convicted of second-degree murder, and his confession was the key piece of evidence. The New York Court of Appeals ordered a retrial, and the second jury found Thomas not guilty.
An even more stunning case happened in Butler, Alabama. In 2001, Victoria Bell Banks, Dianne Bell Tucker, and Medell Banks, Jr., were each sentenced to fifteen years in prison. The trio all implicated themselves in the murder of Victoria Bell Banks’ newborn child. The State of Alabama, it was later determined, had convicted three people for the murder of someone who never even existed. In 1999 Victoria Bell Banks had faked a pregnancy in order to get released on bond for a minor charge from the Choctaw County jail. One of the two doctors who examined her had reported a possible fetal heartbeat. Months later, when Ms. Banks again encountered local police, they asked about her baby – the reason she had been released from jail – and when she claimed that she had miscarried, Alabama police launched an investigation that ended with three false confessions and three wrongful convictions.
SOME ARE EXTREMELY VULNERABLE
Victoria Bell Banks has an IQ of 40. Medell Banks, Jr., has an IQ of 57. Brendan Dassey has an IQ of 70. Intellectually disabled persons are extremely vulnerable to admitting to crimes they didn’t commit. Teenagers and children are also vulnerable. All of these groups are easily influenced and intimidated by authority figures. However, if you think the Dassey, Bivens, Thomas, and Banks cases are anomalies – glitches in the system – you would be wrong. False confessions are more common in the U.S. criminal justice system than most of us would want to admit.
For example, according to Steven Drizin, legal director for the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School in Chicago, there have been dozens of cases in which parents have confessed to killing their children or children have confessed to killing their parents. Those confessions were later determined to be false. Sometimes, a person will simply walk into a police station “out of the blue” and confess falsely to a crime, but the majority of false confessions are coerced by the police during interrogations.
IF YOU ARE INTERROGATED
What happens in a police interrogation? According to Richard A. Leo, the author of Police Interrogation and American Justice (Harvard University Press, 2008), if you’re charged with a crime, the first thing you should know is that an interrogation can be lengthy, and there can be more than one. Never, ever allow the police to interrogate you without having your attorney present. You have the right to remain silent, and you have the right to legal counsel during any questioning or interrogation by the police. Show the police respect, don’t be hostile or have an attitude, but firmly insist on your legal rights. If every suspect insisted on his or her rights from the beginning, the number of false confessions – and wrongful convictions and needlessly ruined lives – would decline substantially. If you are charged with a crime, contact a good defense lawyer at once, and in southern California, call an experienced Orange County criminal defense attorney.
A study published in 2007 in Law and Human Behavior surveyed 631 police interrogators and detectives about their interrogations. Respondents said that about four out of five criminal suspects waive their Miranda rights – their rights to remain silent and to have an attorney present during questioning – and that one in every twenty confessions they hear is a false confession. Wisconsin police interrogated Brendan Dassey five times, and each session lasted for hours. The police can even ignore your request for a lawyer. In California, officers routinely continue talking to suspects after a lawyer has been requested. That’s because if a suspect starts talking again, then the request for a lawyer is considered waived. Also in California, prosecutors can use statements given without a lawyer’s presence to “impeach” a defendant’s credibility if that defendant testifies in his or her own defense.
LIES, TRICKS, AND DECEPTIONS
The police are allowed to use lies, tricks, and deceptions when interrogating suspects – which is why you should always exercise your right to remain silent if you become the subject of a police interrogation. Most police agencies conduct interrogations using what is called the “Reid Technique,” a nine-step procedure that begins by confronting the suspect with guilt and then offering the suspect a reason for why he or she committed the crime. Officers may then apply a variety of psychological pressures to obtain a confession. Some observers believe the Reid Technique should be abandoned because it results in so many false confessions.
Everyone’s heard the old adage that “confession is good for the soul,” but it’s obvious that a false confession is not so good. A confession is a commanding piece evidence against a criminal suspect. If you have made a false confession to a crime for any reason, or if you have been subjected to a coercive interrogation by the police, you need serious legal help, and you need it now. Obtain the help you need and contact a good defense lawyer as quickly as possible, and in southern California, speak to an experienced Orange County criminal defense attorney.