I’m certain I wasn’t alone when I felt the collective air escaping from people’s hopes on December 8th, last year. That date saw The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, reverse Brendan Dassey’s granted petition for a writ of habeas corpus, and with that, disbelief ensued.
Ten-weeks past, and Dassey’s appeal to The Supreme Court is in waiting. Being the final recourse for relief, ten-weeks more, could still find the public waiting*. Understandably so. Steven Drizin, Dassey’s co-counsel, and Clinical Professor of Law at Northwestern Prtizker School of Law, reassured the public that Dassey’s fight for justice remains strong.
*Since the publication of this article, Steven Drizin has indicated that, “We expect to file a brief within a matter of days, not weeks, and then it will be revealed who has been added to the Dassey team.”
Whilst SCOTUS accepting to hear Dassey’s appeal is against the odds, his case has clearly polarised opinion amongst judges. With 8 federal judges evenly split as to whether Dassey’s confession was voluntary, and public opinion— not only in the US, but from all around the world— crying out for Dassey’s conviction to be vacated, hope remains.
A question being asked more and more often is, how can the public be pro-active, and help elicit change? While Dassey shot into the public-eye via the hit docu-series, Making a Murderer, cases liken to his remain less exposed. Whether public opinion influences decisions made by the courts is debatable, but an educated public not only leads to understanding, but also makes rise to important debate. With educated debate, change can occur.
Much has been written on the Reid Technique— used on Dassey during his interrogation—and it’s propensity for extracting confessions, some of which false. Studies into interrogation techniques by Law and Human Behaviour, a bimonthly journal, dedicated to discussing ‘issues arising from the relationships between human behaviour and the law, the legal system, and the legal process’ indicated that 91% of officers ‘receive informal, “on the job” interrogation training.’ Included in the study, were findings suggesting, ‘ that police interrogate youth in the same manner as adults’ as ‘usage patterns were identical for adult and juvenile suspects.’
Although these findings relate to Dassey directly—he was 16 at the time of his interrogations— highlighting issues with Reid purely on age, could fall short on addressing the underlying issue. One person’s 16 could easily equate to another’s 25 in terms of mentality. Dassey’s IQ was also often brought before the judges of varying courts, but again, these are just numbers used to measure. I know many people, who if subjected to an interrogation akin to that of Dassey’s, who would quite possibly have assumed the same fate. Are they juveniles? Are they of low IQ? No, on neither account. The fundamental problem is Reid as a whole.
Does there need to be a demarcation as to when a juvenile becomes an adult for purposes of law? Sure, and I accept that, yet the reality is that people are different. Persons of interest need to be seen as individuals and susceptibility to false confessions should not be measured by numbers.
Of course, techniques used for questioning potential suspects are important— so what are the alternatives?
PEACE, standing for: Preparation & Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure and Evaluate is one such alternative. The PEACE method utilises more of an interview style rather than that of an interrogation. At its heart, PEACE concludes that the truth can be gleaned more reliably by engaging the interviewee in a more relaxed and less accusational manner. Intimidation can often lead to suspects telling the interviewer what they want to hear, as a defence-mechanism to alleviating the confrontation. Juveniles and those with learning difficulties have been shown to be more susceptible, but nobody is immune to fear. Some deal with it better than others, but in relation to innocence or guilt, the comparisons don’t marry.
Like PEACE, the Defence Barrier Removal system also focuses on building a rapport with the suspect. By creating a non-threatening atmosphere, DBR claims to be a ‘highly effective method of getting a suspect to tell the truth.’ Unlike PEACE, DBR is already used in several states of the US.
Just knowing these techniques are used in countries such as Britain and Canada (PEACE) and the US(DBR) to great effect, still doesn’t help the likes of Dassey and others convicted by confessions via the Reid Technique. For the current, and future generations to benefit this needs to change, and this is where the public can help. Rejecting the Reid Technique, and promoting other methods can be done by contacting your local legislators. You can find who represents you by going here. Write to them, and let them know how you feel. The more that your local representatives realise that— not only are you are unhappy, but you are also educated in these techniques— the more likely change can occur. By all means, spread the word on social media, but please get in contact with the relevant authorities.
Whatever techniques are used however, confessions being corroborated by further evidence is essential. When the punishment for conviction can be life-in-prison, or even death in certain states in the US, relying on only one form of evidence can easily lead to wrongful convictions. While certain judges at the 7th Circuit proffer that Dassey’s confession alluded to details that could only be known to Teresa Halbach’s murderer, the sheer lack of any further evidence is conspicuous by its absence.
Facts and Figures
Police-induced false confessions are among the leading causes of wrongful convictions.
Since the late 1980s, six studies alone have documented approximately 250 interrogation-induced false confessions.
In Bedau and Radelet’s 1987 study, false confessions were the third leading cause of wrongful conviction; In Warden’s 2003 study they were the single leading cause.
Police-induced false confessions appear to occur primarily in the more serious cases, especially homicides and other high-profile felonies.
More than 80 percent of the 125 false confessions documented by Professors Steve Drizin and Richard Leo occurred in homicide cases.
False confessions make for the leading cause of wrongful convictions in homicide cases.
More than two-thirds of the DNA-cleared homicide cases documented by the Innocence Project were caused by false confessions.
There have been 317 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States.
Exonerations have been won in 38 states; since 2000, there have been 250 exonerations.
In about 30% of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty.
18 of the 258 people exonerated through DNA served time on death row.
The average length of time served by exonerates is 13.5 years.
The average age of exonerees at the time of their wrongful convictions is 27.
92% of false confessors are men.
The most common bases for exoneration were the real perpetrator was identifed (74%) or that new scientiific evidence was discovered (46%).
63% of false confessors were under the age of 25, and 32% were under 18; yet of all persons arrested for murder and rape, only 8 and 16%, respectively, are juveniles.
22% were mentally retarded and 10% had a diagnosed mental illness.
Multiple false confessions to the same crime were obtained in 30% of the cases, wherein one false confession was used to prompt others.
2009 brought 22 new cases of DNA exonerations of people wrongly convicted. The overall total is 258, and the Innocence Project reports that roughly 25% had given false confessions.
Among a total of 340 exonerations of all kinds documented between 1989 and 2003, 15 percent involved false confessions.
Of the 24 exonerations in New York State, 13 have been based upon false confession. Two-thirds of murder convictions overturned by DNA evidence turned out to have been based on false confessions.
Over 850 jurisdictions nationwide, including the states of Alaska, Minnesota and Illinois, regularly record police interrogations.
According to a report by the Northwestern University School of Law, after speaking with hundreds of police jurisdictions, the researchers found that “virtually every officer with whom we spoke, having given custodial recordings a try, was enthusiastically in favor of the practice.”
Sixty-eight percent indicated that they believed a suspect would confess falsely “not very often” (40 percent) or “almost never” (28 percent). This quantifies the perception of trial attorneys who report that the vast majority of potential jurors insist that it is not possible for someone to confess to a crime he did not commit.
There have been 43 wrongful confessions in New York State: New York outpaces almost every other state in the number of wrongful convictions overturned by DNA testing.
In the last seven years, there has been a particularly high number of DNA exonerations in New York State. Since 2000, 17 wrongfully convicted people in New York have been exonerated with DNA evidence; seven of the 17 were wrongfully convicted of murder.
In 10 of New York’s 26 DNA exonerations, the actual perpetrator was later identified.
In nine of those 10 cases, the actual perpetrators of crimes for which innocent people were wrongfully convicted went on to commit additional crimes while an innocent person was in prison. According to law enforcement reports, five murders, seven rapes, two serious assaults and one robbery at gunpoint were committed by the actual perpetrators of crimes for which innocent people were committed – and each of those crimes was committed after the wrongful arrest or conviction, so they could have been prevented if wrongful convictions had not happened.
Eyewitness misidentification played a role in 13 of the 23 wrongful convictions in New York that were overturned with DNA testing.
In 11 of the 26 cases in New York, innocent people falsely confessed or admitted to crimes that DNA later proved they did not commit.
Limited or unreliable forensic science played a role in 10 of the 23 wrongful convictions in New York that were overturned through DNA evidence. In nine of those ten cases, the actual perpetrators of crimes for which innocent people were wrongfully convicted went to commit additional crimes while an innocent person was in prison. According to law enforcement reports, five murders, seven rapes, two serious assaults and one robbery at gunpoint were committed by the actual perpetrators of crimes for which innocent people were committed – and each of those crimes was committed after the wrongful arrest or conviction, so they could have been prevented if wrongful convictions had not happened.
—Facts & Figures courtesy of falseconfessions.org Correct as of 2014—
Many thanks to the person who gave me something to “chew on” and providing me with such great resources. If you the reader, have any questions or queries in relation to this article, or anything CJReform related, please contact me here.