One of the biggest questions in the wildly popular Netflix docuseries “Making a Murderer” is whether Brendan Dassey — a Wisconsin teen who, along with his uncle Steven Avery, was convicted in the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach — was pressured into giving a false confession.
Dassey, who was then 16, was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide, mutilation of a corpse, and second-degree sexual assault after he made a detailed confession that includes grisly details of how he and Avery raped, tortured, and murdered Halbach. But Dassey’s lawyers argued that investigators coerced him into confessing to a crime he did not actually commit.
False confessions happen more often than you’d think, and they have a disturbing history.
Why would someone confess to a crime they didn’t commit?
More than one out of four people who later turn out to have been wrongfully convicted made false confessions or incriminating statements at some point during the trial or questioning process, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people using DNA evidence.
Forensic psychologist Julia Shaw writes in Scientific American that there are three main reasons people confess to crimes they are not guilty of committing:
- They are voluntarily confessing for the notoriety, or to cover for someone else. For example, a gang member may “confess” to doing something that the leader of the gang did.
- They are being compliant with what they think the investigator wants to hear, possibly because they just want to escape the situation.
- They have trouble separating fact from fiction, and come to believe something that didn’t happen.
Dassey and his lawyers basically claimed Dassey confessed for the second reason, arguing that he was especially vulnerable because he had a low IQ.
False confessions like this can and do occur — more often than we’d like to admit.
The Reid Technique
A New Yorker story from 2013 describes the case of Darrel Parker, a forester in Lincoln, Nebraska, who was convicted of murdering his wife and sentenced to life in prison after confessing to the crime. He was later paroled on the grounds that his confession had been coerced. Some years later, another death row inmate later provided a detailed confession of the crime, and Parker was ultimately pardoned and successfully sued the state.
Parker had been interrogated by a man named John Reid, who developed an interview method called the Reid Technique. His company, John E. Reid & Associates, Inc., now trains more interrogators than any other company in the world, and claims it gets suspects to confess 80% of the time, The New Yorker reported.
The Reid Technique has three parts:
- Factual Analysis: Interrogators interview possible suspects to establish possible guilt or innocence.
- Behaviour Analysis Interview: Interrogators ask “non-accusatory” questions to try to determine a suspect’s guilt or innocence.
- Reid Nine Steps of Interrogation: Interrogators tell the suspect they know he or she did it, and press them for details. To get the suspect to open up, they might try to minimise the seriousness of the crime. Or they may even lie outright, saying things like, “we have your fingerprints on the gun.”
Studies have shown that these methods can be very persuasive — regardless of whether the person being interrogated actually committed the crime or not.
It gets worse
In the 1990s, psychologist Saul Kassin and his colleagues did an experiment involving a total of 75 students. In each experiment, two students would sit at a computer, and one (who was working for the researchers) would dictate as the other typed. The typing volunteer was told not to hit the “Alt” key or it would crash the computer.
Unbeknownst to them, the computer was programmed to crash automatically. When this happened, the dictator would always accuse the typist of hitting Alt, which all the typists initially denied. In some cases, the dictator would go so far as to say they had seen the typist hit the Alt key.
After all of this, the typists were asked to sign a statement confessing to the “crime.” Surprisingly, a whopping 69% of the 75 students confessed to something they didn’t do. Strikingly, those who were told they had been seen hitting the key confessed at almost twice the rate as those who weren’t told they’d been seen.
Not only that, but about a third of the students also internalized their feelings of guilt, saying things like, “I hit the wrong button and ruined the program.” And nearly 10% were able to reconstruct fake details about hitting Alt the key, such as “Yes, here, I hit it with the side of my hand right after you called out the ‘A.””
Other research reinforces what Kassin’s team found. Melissa Russano, an associate professor of criminal justice at Roger Williams University, published a study in 2005 where her team successfully used Reid-like interrogation techniques to get people to confess (sometimes falsely) to cheating on an exam.
This all leads us to an uncomfortable truth:
As Shaw writes, “Making people confess to things they didn’t do is easier than we might be happy to accept.”
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