Since the start of 2016, millions of TV viewers have become enthralled with Netflix's Making a Murderer docuseries. The 10-hour program chronicles the life of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was found to be falsely convicted of a 1985 sexual assault—only to be charged with murder shortly after his release in 2003. In perhaps the most talked-about scene of the series, Avery's teenage nephew, Brendan Dassey, is interrogated by two police officers. Dassey, who clearly did not have the capacity to understand his circumstances, admits to committing murder with his uncle after painstaking badgering from the interrogating officers. The confession became a sticking point for the prosecution and both Avery and Dassey remain in jail for crimes many believe they did not commit.
This week, Dateline NBC covered a murder case as well, this time that of Robert Davis, a man who was wrongly convicted of murdering a woman and her son. Davis would later be released after 13 years in prison, but Dateline closely examined the evidence that first put him there: a false confession taken under dubious circumstances by police officers. In both Davis' and Dassey's cases, parallels can been seen that call into question methods law enforcement agencies—including CID—use to confront suspects in the interrogation room.
WHAT IS A FALSE CONFESSION?
A false confession occurs whenever an innocent suspect admits to committing a crime they did not perpetrate. For many, imagining an innocent person admitting to something as serious a crime seems far-fetched or unbelievable, but the more advocates and researchers look into the phenomena, the more common it appears to be.
The Northwestern University Innocence Project is an advocate group focused on re-examining questionable criminal convictions and giving suspects the resources they need to appeal their guilty verdict. Laura Nirider is part of the Innocence Project and spoke to the Washington and Lee University's False Confessions Symposium to greater detail just how these confessions can be extracted from innocent suspects.
"It is the process of lowering the suspect's confidence in his own ability to convince the interrogator that he's innocent. This is a period of accusation: 'we know you did this, we have the evidence,'" Nirider explained (even if law enforcement actually doesn't have evidence). She then describes making the suspect hit a "rock bottom" with this lack of confidence and hope, which law enforcement then exploits by offering a "psychological out:" officers will empathize with the suspect and say that if the suspect explains that crime was an accident of some kind, a momentary lack of judgement, that they will be able to help them. "And that's the opportunity that this person [the suspect] sees... that's the opening. 'Ah-ha! Maybe there's some way I can help myself if I just say what he's telling me to say.'"
"4.5 TIMES HIGHER"
Not everyone is susceptible to false confessions but, as in the cases of Davis and Dassey, other factors can come into play. Below average intelligence of the suspect played a key factor in both confessions and in the case of Davis, medication and sleep deprivation was present, as well: his interview began at 2 am and didn't conclude until the late morning.
According to a new report from the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge, sleep deprivation may help facilitate many false confessions. In a recent study, they showed that subjects were 4.5 times more likely to admit to actions they did not commit when they had not slept all night.
TURNING THE TIDE
False confessions are not a new phenomenon. In fact, in the UK, they were such a concern that law enforcement agencies have revamped their interrogation protocols and even passed laws to prevent false confessions from happening. "The public confidence in police was dropping," explained veteran UK detective Andy Griffiths to NYU Law School last year. "So what the UK police did was look to train every single police officer out there... and that has become industry standard."
Griffiths also explained that even though every officer receives interrogation training, not every officer interrogates suspects. Officers are evaluated for their interrogation skills and candidates are then given six weeks of additional training to become interrogators. "What we have found is that when you take the right people and give them the right skills, you get very good interviewers. But it's not for everyone," Griffiths remarked. "Same as firearms or driving fast cars... it's now a specialist's task." It is also illegal in the UK to interview a criminal suspect who has not had eight hours of sleep in the past 24 hours.
Now may be a critical time for US law enforcement agencies, both civilian and military, to re-examine their interrogation methods: The National Registry of Exonerations reports that there were 149 post-conviction exonerations in 2015, the most of any previous year in the US—and that 27 of those suspects had been convicted based on false confessions. Those 2015 numbers are actually anemic by some reports, including New Scientist, who concluded that false confessions are a part of 25% of all wrongful convictions in the United States.
If you are a military servicemember who has been accused of a criminal act, you may need your rights asserted. Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law has dedicated our firm to the protection of military members who have been charged with crimes. A 10+ year veteran of the U.S. Army, he has successfully resolved false confession cases in the accused's favor and continues to travel the globe to advocate for his clients and ensure they receive every consideration they deserve.
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