True crime shows comprise one of the most popular genres in the entertainment culture. People are fascinated with who did it and why; how they got caught or got away.
More and more, though, it seems the storyline is “falsely accused” and “false confession.” Curiosity and fascination deepen when the possibility emerges that the convicted criminal may actually be an innocent victim. Recent developments regarding the central figure in Netflix’s controversial documentary series, “Making a Murderer,” is a case in point.
In numerous cases where prime suspects end up in jail, defense attorneys later go back to the beginning and, with the help of forensic and interrogation experts, expose flaws in the evidence gathering and, often, in the way investigators interviewed suspects. In “Making a Murderer,” Steven Avery is in prison for the murder of Teresa Halbach. Avery denied carrying out the crime, and his attorney, Kathleen Zellner, recently won a request that could help lead to a new trial.
The conviction was based in part on the confession of also-convicted 16-year-old Brendan Dassey, Avery’s nephew. However, the teen later recanted the confession, which he gave without a lawyer present. It was claimed that Dassey was coerced and intimidated by investigators. Attempts by Dassey's attorneys to have his confession overturned have bounced through state and federal courts since his conviction.
Without his confession, there wasn't much of a case. With a suspect like Dassey, who has reported intellectual disabilities, interrogators often try to build a rapport so the suspect will see them as being good guys trying to help. That’s particularly effective with someone as young as Dassey. You can convince a 16-year-old of anything, especially if they're in a vulnerable position.
The Netflix series investigated the law enforcement and judicial procedures in the case and suggested: 1) evidence may have been planted and, 2) that Dassey’s confession came due to interrogators pressuring him.
The latter occurrence, statistics show, happens a disturbing amount of the time in law enforcement, and the public isn’t aware of it. Let’s take a peek inside the interrogation room and see how forced and false confessions happen.
There’s a misnomer about what occurs inside the interrogation room. One of the issues is that what juries see in an interrogation video is not necessarily what’s really occurring. Some of the interviewing language and techniques that are used are sometimes not explained to juries.
Remember, the whole point of an interrogation is to get a confession, and it can lead to all kinds of tricks to get just that.
The “narrative trap.” When investigating how interrogations went down, I look at how the questions were constructed, and also how law enforcement got to the point where they targeted the suspect. The narrative trap is when a question is constructed in such a way by the interviewer that the context may not be understood completely by the suspect. Thus, he or she provides an answer that may be incriminating.
But when a jury looks at that video, they don’t know why certain questions are being asked. Or, why is a rapport being built between the interrogator and the suspect? Or, why during rapport-building was the suspect given their Miranda Rights – their right to silence – which they soon forgot in an hour during the interview?
Blackout confessions. Drug use and drinking get brought up in interrogations, and interrogators sometimes will use it as a way to establish having something in common with the suspect. The questioner will say something like, “Yeah, I’ve had a few too many drinks and done things I didn’t remember. A lot of us make mistakes like that. Maybe you had too much that night.” The interrogator engages in rapport-building, and questions can come in a sneaky way, eliciting responses that can be seen as incriminating. The innocent suspect gets tricked into a confession. He or she leaves the interview thinking everything is fine, and the next thing they know, they’re arrested.
Minimizing and maximizing. Interrogators talk suspects into a confession sometimes by telling them “coming clean” will result in a minimized sentence. Otherwise, they say, it could be the maximum. The pressure builds on the suspect to confess.
One of the key issues is the pressure of the press and local community. The police believe they’ve targeted the right person, but there can be biases and a lack of information or hard evidence. That happens because they’re not using the inductive method of investigation, which considers all evidence – not just the part that fits their original theory.
You have to ask yourself: Why would someone confess something he or she didn’tdo? Sometimes they’re being led down a garden path by interrogators. The suspect believes they’re helping interrogators solve the problem – when in reality they’re on a path to prison.
Brian Leslie (www.criminalcaseconsultants.com) is a forensic expert focusing on coercive police interrogation and interview techniques. The author of three books – Reaction Analysis Profiling, Deception of a Witness, and Visual Liar – Leslie has over 15 years of previous law enforcement experience. He is regularly retained to analyze the contents of written, video and audio witness/victim interviews, suspect interviews and interrogations that were conducted by law enforcement. He also examines the interviews and investigative notes by child protection service agencies in the United States.