2016: Making A Murderer Dominates The Year in False Confession News

On December 18, 2015, NETFLIX released Making a Murderer ("MAM"), a 10-part docuseries written and directed by first-time filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi. The series, which chronicled the cases of two convicted murderers -- Steven Avery and his 16 year-old learning disabled nephew Brendan Dassey -- became an Emmy-award winning, international phenomenon. Within the first 35 days of its release, over 19 million people had watched the series in the United States alone.

MAM jumpstarted a national conversation on police interrogation tactics and their relationship to false and coerced confessions and whether the tactics police used to pressure Brendan to confess should ever be permitted when police interrogate young and disabled suspects. Although, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, there were far more exonerations based on false confessions in 2015 (27), than 2016 (10), far more attention was paid to the subject of false confessions in 2016, largely due to what has been dubbed "The Making a Murderer Effect."

Although MAM generated most of the interest in false confessions, there was plenty of other false confession news in 2016, the highlights of which are covered below.

January

January's MAM news contained two of my favorite exchanges of the year. First, Dr. Phil schooled Nancy Grace, who saw nothing wrong with the way the police interrogated Dassey. Dr. Phil's "I could have gotten Brendan Dassey to confess to the Irish Potato famine" temporarily silenced Ms. Grace. Second, Harvey Levin of TMZ cut former Dassey lawyer Len Kachinsky to the quick when he asked Kachinsky why he allowed the police to "grill Brendan Dassey like a cheeseburger."

For more than two decades, Tyra Patterson has insisted that she was coerced into falsely confessing to participating in a murder. Her story was featured in a stunning three-part series by The Guardian. Tyra's attorney, David Singleton, also launched the "I am Tyra Patterson" campaign to bring attention to her plight.

MAM inspires a TN. legislator to propose a bill requiring that juveniles be interrogated in presence of lawyer, guardian or parent.

Newsweek recountsthe bittersweet story of the Fairbanks Four ("FB4"), four Native young men who were released in December 2015 after having served more than 20 years for a murder they insist they did not commit. Freedom for the FB4 came at a price - they were required to give up their right to sue authorities. Like Brendan Dassey's case, an unreliable confession from a teenager -- 17-year old Eugene Vent -- was at the center of the FB4 case.

David Thompson, an interviewer at the training firm of Wicklander & Zulawski - one of the chief competitors of Chicago's John E. Reid & Associates - questions many of the techniques used by police during Brendan's interrogation.

MAM was the reference point for another possible false confession from a teenager -- Bradley Albon of Brantford, Canada

February

Journalism prof Douglas Starr references MAM in calling for changes in interrogation techniques to prevent false confessions.

Dateline NBC's "The Interrogation" tells the story of Robert Davis's false confession and the work which led to his release and conditional pardon. Here's footage of Robert coming home to his mother.

Inspired by MAM, NY state senator proposes legislation requiring simplified Miranda warnings for juveniles.

Brooklyn DA Ken Thompson and his Conviction Review Unit agree to vacate Vanessa Gathers' manslaughter conviction. Gathers, who falsely confessed and spent a decade in prison, is exonerated.

Scientists find that sleep deprivation significantly increases the risk of false confessions.

March

The power of confession evidence often blinds prosecutors to the truth, even when DNA points them to the true perpetrator. Just ask Philadelphia prosecutors who insisted on retrying Anthony Wright even though DNA evidence almost certainly identified a neighborhood crack addict as the man who murdered and raped Louis Talley in 1991.

April

Max Soffar who claimed that his confession to killing several people during a robbery in Houston in 1981 was false, dies of cancer after 35 years on death row before he could be exonerated or executed.

The wrongfully convicted deserve closure too. Tom Sawyer lived for 30 years under a cloud of suspicion because he had falsely confessed to the 1986 murder of Janet Staschak. Sawyer raised his fist in the air in a Florida courtroom in quiet celebration when Stephen Lamont --linked to Staschak's murder by DNA, -- entered a plea of guilty.

Northwestern Pritzker School of Law hosts a two-hour standing room only program "Brendan Dassey: A True Story of a False Confession." which is filmed and later released on YOUTUBE.

Illinois proposes a new law requiring counsel for children under the age of 15 charged with homicides and sex crimes. In August, Gov. Bruce Rauner signs the bill into law.

DNA evidence excluded Billy Wayne Cope and linked James Sanders to the rape and murder of Cope's 12-year old daughter in 2001. Sanders, a total stranger to Cope, was also a crack-addicted, serial sexual predator who during a six week period was broke-into occupied homes and robbed, beat, and sexually assaulted numerous women in Rock Hill, S.C. The jury never heard this evidence and convicted Cope as a co-conspirator of Sanders. In 2016, Cope is still fighting for his freedom, filing a motion for a new trial.

Innocence Project releases PSA featuring three of the Central Park Five in effort to get NY legislators to require recording of interrogations. Spoil alert! It doesn't work.

May

Jim Trainum, former DC homicide cop, releases the book of the year when it comes to false confessions, explaining how tunnelvision, coercion, and fact-feeding cause police to "generate" false confessions. It receives a rave review in the Washington Post.

Bob Kolker's article in Wired goes inside the LAPD and charts a new course for interrogations in America pioneered by the High-Value Detainee Interrogation Group. The new program emphasizes rapport-building and rejects the Reid-Technique and other more confrontational approaches.

June

A Texas prosecutor tells how a bogus murder confession changed his views on family violence cases.

The Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, the Michigan Innocence Clinic and others succeed in efforts to vacate Davontae Sanford's conviction. Sanford, who was only 14 when he falsely confessed to and later pled guilty to a quadruple murder that was actually committed by serial contract hit man named Vincent Smothers, is freed after serving more than 9 years in prison.

Melissa Calusinski, represented by Steven Avery's new lawyer Kathleen Zellner, wins a new evidentiary hearing after new medical evidence suggests that the child who died at the day care center where she worked did not fracture her skull.

On the 50th anniversary of Miranda v. Arizona, Colorado enacts a new law requiring that interrogations of suspects be electronically recorded.

Teina Pora, New Zealand's most famous juvenile false confessor, is awarded more than 2.5 million dollars for the more than two decades he served in prison. But he gets something worth even more to him -- an Apology.

Gabriel Solache and Arturo DeLeon Reyes are granted a new hearing to determine if their confessions were coerced by retired and now-disgraced Chicago detective Reynaldo Guevara.

Worcester, MA. agrees to pay former teenager Nga Truong $2.1 million after coercive tactics by police led Truong to confess to smothering her infant son.

July

Was fourteen-year old Lorenzo Montoya convicted of a murder he did not commit? Once again, brutal police interrogation tactics - captured on a recording -- raise questions about the reliability of Montoya's confession.

Did threats of the death penalty lead James Edward Long, Michael Dewayne Shelton and James Wayne Pitts Jr. to confess falsely and testify that they and Richard Bryan Kissmaul raped 17 year-old Leslie Murphy before Kissmaul killed her and her 14 year-old friend? DNA evidence now proves that none of the men - dubbed the Waco Four -- raped Murphy.

Exceptions sometimes swallow the rule in states which require police to record interrogations.

Beatrice Six defendants win $28.1 million dollars in settlement in case involving five proven false confessions.

After serving 20 years in prison for a double-murder, Chicagoans Charles Johnson and Larod Styles are given a new trial when fingerprint evidence links another man to the crime and undermines the reliability of their confessions.

Joel Alcox, whose conviction was reversed by a panel of federal appellate judges in May, reflects on his fight to reclaim his freedom.

False confessors Carl Dukes and Lavell Jones are freed after 20 years after Jeffrey Conrad's true confession clears them of a 1997 murder.

August

Robert Perske, long-time advocate for Richard Lapointe and others with developmental disabilities who had falsely confessed, dies at the age of 88.

California passes SB 1052 requiring counsel for kids before they are given Miranda warnings during police interrogations. Governor Jerry Brown later vetoes the law.

A couple who falsely confessed to murdering daughters in arson are acquitted by Japanese court and freed after two decades.

A federal magistrate overturns Brendan Dassey's confession, finding that Dassey's confession was the product of coercive police tactics and extensive fact-feeding.

It took a Philadelphia jury only 90 minutes to acquit Anthony Wright of a 1991 rape and murder. The jury forewoman issued a stern rebuke to the prosecutors for re-trying Wright even though DNA evidence linked another to the crime.

Five years after DNA evidence had exonerated the "Dixmoor Five"
of the 1991 murder and rape of Cateresa Matthews, a new investigation results in the arrest Willie Randolph who had been linked to the crime in 2011.

September

Terry Olson, of Minnesota, is released from prison after the man who implicated him admits that he gave a false confession to the police. Olson's freedom come at a price; the State agrees to let him out with time-served -- ten years -- if he drops his legal challenges but does not agree to vacate his conviction.

"No sane human being could find then guilty." That's what federal judge John Gibney, Jr. wrote when vacating the convictions of two of the Norfolk Four false confessors, Danial Williams and Joseph Dick.

Mark Maxson is released after new DNA evidence proves that his confession was false and exonerates him of the 1992 brutal murder of a young boy.

October

A federal judge vacates the conviction of John Floyd, a New Orleans man who falsely confessed to stabbing and killing two gay men in New Orleans in 1980.

Joseph Buffey, a West Virginia man who falsely confessed to raping an 83-year-old West Virginia woman in 2001, is freed after he enters an Alford guilty plea to robbery and burglary charges.

John Horton, of Rockford, IL, who at age 17 in 1993, falsely confessed to a murder, is granted a new trial by an Illinois appellate court.

Kenneth Thompson, the visionary King's County District Attorney whose Conviction Review Unit exonerated numerous false confessors, dies of cancer. Thompson's CRU exonerated Willie Stuckey and David McCallum, two teens who falsely confessed and McCallum delivered a eulogy at his funeral.

A new trial is granted to Jose Maysonet, another man who claims that he falsely confessed to a double murder after being interrogated by former Chicago detective Reynaldo Guevara.

November

Scandal rocks the the Springfield, MA police department after a video is released of a detective threatening a teenage suspect.

December

Holly Lai, the sister of murder victim Michelle Lai, publicly supports Tyra Patterson's clemency and provides powerful new evidence of Patterson's innocence.

Forensic Developmental Psychologist Lindsay Malloy explains why juvenile suspects falsely confess in this TedXTalk.

David McCallum and Jeff Deskovic, two teenagers who spent decades in prison for murders they did not commit, explain why they falsely confessed, in this podcast.

Who better than Amanda Knox to opine about why women may be more likely to falsely confess when pressured by police.

Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe grants an absolute pardon to Robert Davis based on actual innocence.

Lamarr Monson, who claims to have falsely confessed to a 1996 murder and now has fingerprint evidence and other evidence to prove it, fights for a new trial.

Even though new DNA testing excluded Christopher Tapp as the source of DNA found on Angie Dodge's body and clothing and even though his own expert raised serious questions about the reliability of Tapp's confession to Dodge's 1996 murder, Bonneville County, Idaho Prosecutor Danny Clark refuses to grant a new trial to Tapp. All is not lost, however, as Tapp is granted an evidentiary hearing in 2017 to explore the significance of withheld evidence.

New arson science calls into question the reliability of William Amor's confession to setting a fire that killed his mother-in-law.

The MAM Effect shows no sign of subsiding. With new MAM episodes coming out in 2017 and a bevy of new shows on false confessions and wrongful convictions, 2017 promises to be yet another year in which the general public will get a free master class on the subject of false confessions. But will a more educated and informed public lead to justice for Brendan Dassey? Will it give new life to the claims of innocents who falsely confessed but who remain locked up? Will it lead police officers to change their interrogation tactics, prosecutors to be less reflexive in charging defendants who confess, juries to be more skeptical of confession evidence, and judges to more carefully scrutinize confession evidence? Only time will tell, but I plan on doing everything in my power to make sure that the answer to these questions is a resounding "Yes."