A False Confessions Expert Talks Dassey

Unless you've been living under a rock since Christmas, you've likely heard of Netflix's popular crime and justice documentary Making a Murderer, which scrutinizes a pair of murder convictions from 2006 — those of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin resident Steven Avery, and his nephew, Brendan Dassey. Much of the conversation has naturally focused on Avery, the central figure of the series, but questions about Dassey's case abound. Above all else, these two: was Brendan Dassey's confession false, and if so, will that enable him to get a new trial?

On the matter of whether the confession was coerced, led, or in any sense improperly conducted, you can see it for yourself and see what you think. That's because the entire confession is available to watch online — but be forewarned, it's pretty upsetting. Countless people close to Dassey, within the context of Making a Murderer, have argued that the then 16-year-old's cognition and comprehension simply weren't at the level where he could suitably withstand an isolated, three-hours-plus interrogation by career investigators, and wherever the truth lies, that argument is spoken to at countless times in the footage.

Moreover, the March 1 interrogation is only the final of four interrogations which took place over several days, and shouldn't be viewed in isolation. Similar tactics can be seen in the other interrogations. Meanwhile, Manitowoc investigators maintained during Dassey's trial and thereafter that their interrogation tactics were by the book.

Regardless, by the time the interrogation is all said and done, and Dassey is finally able to speak to his mother, she's in disbelief that he confessed to such a grisly crime (Dassey told investigators that he helped Avery rape and murder 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach). She asks him whether he did the things he confessed to and, if not, why he told the police he did. Dassey's answers, which inexplicably were not shown to the jurors during his trial? "Not really... They got to my head."

Whether he'll successfully appeal his conviction, and whether a jury will agree with him — indeed, whether Dassey committed the crime or did not — is another matter. There are even bigger questions than those sparked by Making a Murderer,which include: Are false confessions common? Theoretically, how could somebody convince you to confess to a murder you didn't commit? Why would a person continue to give increasingly lurid, false details that could land you in prison for decades of your life?

Fortunately, there are experts who can help shine some light on this phenomenon. For instance, Steve Drizin, co-founder of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY), which is currently handling Dassey's case. In an interview, Drizin tells Bustle that the CWCY is "the only innocence organization in the country focused specifically on wrongful convictions of youth," and that they have worked on cases like Brendan's throughout the United States.

How exactly can this sort of thing happen? According to Drizin, there are several factors at play, but the phenomenon of false confessions by youths can best be summed up in three points. The first one is wrongful suspicion or assumption on the part of a law enforcement officer — basically, they arrive at the conclusion that someone is guilty of a crime, or at the very least involved, which sets in motion the process of prying information out of them. Information which, in reality, might not be there.

There are three errors that occur in every false confession case. The first is the misclassification error. Police mistakenly believe an innocent person is guilty of a crime. This belief is not based on hard evidence but on hunch or instinct or theory. Other times, is based on pseudo-science about body language and other verbal and non-verbal cues that police are trained to believe indicates “deception.” ... Juveniles are likely to be misclassified as guilty because many typical adolescent behaviors like slouching or not making eye contact are misperceived as deception.

Believe it or not, unsubstantiated or wildly inaccurate pseudo-scientific attitudes towards crime investigation are nothing new. In a now-infamous death penalty arson case in Texas, a man named Cameron Todd Willingham was ultimately put to death on the basis of time-worn beliefs about arson investigation which, as Willingham's advocates desperately tried to convince the courts in the weeks leading up to his execution, were based on no empirical research at all.

Over the course of more than three hours, investigators seem to subtly lead Dassey to give the answers they want to hear. That's what Drizin calls the "contamination" phase of a false confession.

The third error is contamination. The way to tell a true confession from a false confession is whether the suspect, without any prompting, can provide non-public details of the crime that only the true perpetrator would know. ... We are lucky that Brendan’s interrogation was video recorded because viewers can see the coercion and contamination. Without such a videotape, police officers frequently deny using such tactics and almost always claim the details came from the suspect.

Furthermore, Dassey seems utterly unaware as to the gravity of his situation, as the investigators tell him during his confession that they're on his side, that they will "go to bat for him," and that things will be "all right" if only he's honest with them or even if he involves himself in the crime a little bit. Such tactics aren't prohibited — the law gives the police broad authority to lie and mislead suspects in the attempt to solve a crime — but with all these factors working in concert, and a target whose youth and mental disabilities make him less mentally equipped to handle the situation than most adults and other teens may be, the ​risk of producing a false confession is, according to Drizin, "way too high."

If you're curious about learning more about false confessions, or the issues and cases being worked on by the CWCY, you've got a prime opportunity coming. You can follow the "Making A Murderer" stream in the Bustle app Thursday at 8pm ET for a chat with Brendan Dassey's lawyers at the CWCY. (Attorney Robert Dvorak also represents Dassey, but is not part of the center.)

Image: Making a Murderer/Netflix (2)