Healthy Living

What 'Making A Murderer' Can Teach Us About Teens And False Confessions

Exploring the excruciating interrogation scenes in "Making A Murderer" and beyond.
01/15/2016 10:43am ET | Updated January 16, 2017
Handout . / Reuters

Netflix's latest true crime documentary, "Making A Murderer," has raised a lot of questions about guilt and innocence, and not just in the case of its principal subject Steven Avery. Avery was convicted of a 2005 murder he says he didn't commit, but many viewers are also horrified by the treatment of Avery's teenaged nephew and convicted accomplice, Brendan Dassey.

Dassey, who has an IQ of 70, was 16 at the time of his arrest. In a videotaped confession after an excruciating, four-hour interrogation without a parent or a lawyer present, he told detectives that he raped and brutalized photographer Teresa Halbach. Dassey later recanted his confession, but his conviction and subsequent life sentence largely hinged on his admission. Many viewers are up in arms over the footage and in the past few weeks, thousands signed a petition demanding Dassey get a retrial.

Whether or not Dassey did in fact play a role in the crime for which he was convicted, research has shown that teens are extremely vulnerable to admitting to crimes they didn't commit. A 2003 study found that teenagers were far more likely than young adults to falsely confess. In the experiment, published in the journal Law and Human Behavior, 88 percent of 15- to 16-year-olds admitted to crashing a computer when researchers presented them with fake evidence. In comparison, only 50 percent of young adults took responsibility for the computer crash in the same situation.

Precedent has borne this out, most famously in the 1989 case of five black and Hispanic teenagers, ages 14 to 16, who were coerced into falsely confessing to beating and sexually assaulting a jogger in New York City's Central Park. Although the teens recanted their confessions, they served a combined 41 years in prison before they were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2002.

Coerced confessions kick the legs out from a criminal justice system that we like to believe is based on truth and impartiality. But what circumstances, exactly, can lead a person to falsely take responsibility for a crime? And why are teenagers so vulnerable to interrogator coercion?

We called Laurence Steinberg, a psychology professor at Temple University and author of Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence, to learn more about why teens are particularly vulnerable to false confessions.

Dassey walks to the courthouse to hear the verdict in his case in 2007 Manitowoc, Wis. After being found guilty, the then-17-year-old was given a life sentence based in part on a confession that he later recanted.

Q: The Brendan Dassey case is heart-wrenching. Is it common for teenagers to confess to a crime and then to recant?

A: There is research that shows teens are more vulnerable to false confessions than adults. First, teenagers tend to be oriented toward the immediate. When an interrogator has a teenager, [he] will frequently say things like 'If you just admit that you did it, I’ll let you go and you can go see your mom.' They don’t think about the longer-term consequences of confessing. They just think, ‘How can I get myself out of this situation right now?’

The second is that teenagers are more likely than adults to comply with what they think authority figures want them to do. If the interrogator sets up the situation where it’s clear what they want you to say, teenagers are more willing to kind of go along with that.

Those two things combined make teenagers much more likely to admit to things that they haven’t done.

Q: Is there a cutoff age when young people mature and become less suggestible?

A: By the time people are 16, they’re not any more susceptible to these things than adults are. But that’s for normal individuals tested under ideal conditions.

When you put [teenagers] under stress or fatigue them, their intellectual abilities break down faster than adults do. Under the conditions of an interrogation, where it’s obviously very stressful -- it’s emotionally arousing -- the reasoning abilities of teenagers are more likely to break down.

“A confession is one of the most damning things in a trial, and one of the things that juries are likely to believe.”

- Laurence Steinberg

Q: The documentary points out that Dassey reads at a fourth-grade level and has an IQ of 70, indicating he's in the range for having an intellectual disability.

It’s not surprising that he acted the way he acted. In this particular case, this kid isn’t so smart. That’s what he says about himself a couple of times during the episode. He doesn’t have a mature ability to figure out why this person wants him to say what he wants him to say.

Intellectual disability impairs [people's] capacity to look at things from somebody else’s point of view, which makes them less able to figure out, ‘What is this person trying to manipulate me into doing here, and why is he trying to manipulate me?’

Q: What are common interrogation tactics that can lead to false confessions?

A: With a kid, one thing they do is dangle some kind of immediate reward. The second thing is that they often lie to them, telling them that if they confess the court or the judge will go easy on them. That’s a very common tactic and of course, it’s not true.

A confession is one of the most damning things in a trial, and one of the things that juries are likely to believe. When an interrogator says something like, ‘If you just admit that you did it, I’ll tell the judge you were cooperating with me and he’ll go easy on you,’ that’s not true.

They way most of us raise our children helps to explain why kids fall for this. As parents, we say, 'I don’t care if you did it or not, I just want you to tell me the truth.' That tactic comes into play in interrogations.

A third is to just lie. It’s allowable under American law for interrogators to lie to people who they are questioning. They will often say that they have evidence that the kid did it, when they don’t have evidence at all. So they’ll say something like, 'Look, you can stay here all night long and tell me that you didn’t do it, but I have a photograph that shows that you did do it,' or 'We found your fingerprints all over this gun,' even if they didn’t. Kids are more gullible.

Dassey is escorted into court for his sentencing 2007. In December, the Netflix documentary "Making a Murderer" reignited interest in his case and sparked petitions alleging that Dassey, now age 26, was coerced into giving a false confession.

Q: Did you notice any of these tactics being used on Dassey in the show?

A: The interrogator clearly doesn’t stop until he gets the answer that he wants to get. Brendan starts by denying it, and then [the interrogator] says, 'No. No, go on. Tell me. I know you were there. What did he do to her head?' Remember that part where he keeps saying that?

Then [Dassey] starts to figure out: 'Well, he wants me to say something about what I did to her head. Maybe I’ll say something like that.'

He’s not thinking ahead at all. He’s not thinking this is going to come back to bite him at a later stage. He wants to get out of that situation.

Q: What's one of the biggest misconceptions about false confessions?

A: People who’ve never been in that situation find it very hard to fathom why someone would admit to doing something bad that they hadn’t done. But if you’ve ever read transcription of interrogations or watched videotapes, you can understand why. We would all like to think, 'Well, I wouldn’t do that if I was in that situation.' An adult would be less likely to do it, but adults give false confessions all the time, also.

Q: Is there a turning point in false confessions when people tend to break under pressure?

A: It’s a combination of stressing the person out, exhausting the person through a very long interrogation and dangling some potential reward for confession in front of him, like a promise of leniency. I’ve read about cases where they keep a kid until he’s really hungry and say 'Look, come on. I’m your friend here. I just need you to say this. And if you say this, we’ll go get something to eat.'

You put the person in a weak or vulnerable state. You persuade them that you know what the facts are and you promise them something in return for confessing.

Another tactic is to try to persuade the person that they simply don’t remember what they did. You see that in cases where a crime was committed when somebody was drinking. You say, 'I know you don’t remember it, but lots of times when we drink, our memories aren’t so good. Maybe you had a little blackout experience there, but you did it. We have people saying that you did it, so you must have done it. So why don’t you just admit it?'

Q: That's so manipulative!

A: It’s incredible. In the United Kingdom, it’s against the law for interrogators to lie, but that’s not the case in the United States.

Q: In the closing arguments at Dassey's trial, prosecutor Tom Fallon says "People who are innocent don't confess."

A: Most law enforcement officers believe that by the time they get to interrogating somebody, that they’re probably guilty. Their tactic is frequently to try to get them to admit rather than to find the truth.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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