When Innocent People Confess

For those of you that believe that innocent people do not confess to crimes they did not commit, you may want to take a look at the Brendon Dassey case. A Federal Court overturned his conviction because of a false confession. Police obtained the confession by using coercion, which violated the Constitution.

False Confession

Dassey went to prison because of a false confession.

Brendan Dassey became the topic of arm chair lawyers everywhere when Netflix’s hit series “Making a Murderer” became a worldwide hit. The show followed the investigation and trials of Brendan Dassey and his uncle, Steven Avery for the murder of Teresa Halbach. Police made Brendan Dassey admit that he helped his uncle murder of Teresa Halbach.

Prosecutor in Dassey’s case told jurors that “innocent people don’t confess to crimes they did not commit”. Unfortunately, that statement was not true. There is too much evidence that many innocent people have confessed to crimes that they did not commit.

Studies Document False Confessions

More than 25% of innocent people in prison made false confessions[1].  A big reason for this huge margin of error is that police use improper interrogation techniques. Many people do not realize that police lie about evidence and make false promises and threats. Courts have said that it’s okay for police to lie and threaten.

Brendan Dassey’s investigators used the Reid Method of questioning[2] to get his false confession. Critics argue that the Reid method is unfair and likely to elicit false confessions. Sadly, Police love the Reid Method.

Some People Are More At Risk

Studies have shown that juveniles, and adults below average intelligence or mental health issues are particularly at risk of making false confessions. This truth is nothing new.

In 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court issued its famous Miranda decision. In doing so it singled out the Reid Method for creating a hostile and coercive environment for suspects. The Court held that the Reid Method and similar approaches demand that police inform suspects of their right to remain silent. They must also advise suspects that they have a right to a lawyer during any police interrogation.

Unfortunately, most juveniles and people with below average intelligence or mental illness often do not understand the Miranda warnings and give up their rights.  Investigators then grill these people, often for hours at a time, using the Reid Method and other harsh techniques. Many legal professionals believe that children should always have an attorney present during any police questioning. These experts believe that the recent rash of exonerations is proof that police shouldn’t interrogate children. Police often terrorize children and their families during questioning.

Juvenile False Confession

  • 17 year old Martin Tankleff confessed to murdering both of his parents[3]. Detectives told him that they had found a lock of his hair in his dead mother’s hand. They also lied that his father blamed Tankleff for the murder just before dying. Tankleff eventually believed he must have done it, saying, “My father never lies.” He spent 17 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. In 2007 a New York State appeals court vacated his conviction. Prosecutors dropped charges in 2008. Tankleff eventually settled a wrongful conviction lawsuit for $3.4 million.
  • 14 year old Michael Crowe confessed to stabbing his 12 year old sister. Police interrogated him without his parents or an attorney[4]. He initially denied any involvement, but officers using the Reid Method broke him down. They lied about evidence and convinced him to confess to the murder and implicate two of his friends. The charges against Michael and friends were later dismissed after police found the actual killer and lifed the dead girl’s DNA from his clothing. The Escondido Police department later agreed to pay $7.5 million in damages for the trauma that they caused the family following the murder of their daughter.
  • 14 year old Lorenzo Montoya confessed to the murder of Emily Johnson in 2000 after he was interrogated without a parent or lawyer[5]. Like Brendon Dassey and Michael Crowe, he initially denied any involvement in the murder but Police successfully used the Reid Method to elicit his confession. Police lied to Lorenzo telling him that they had found evidence linking him to the crime scene. He served 13 years in prison before being exonerated with DNA evidence. He is currently suing the Denver Police Department for 30 million dollars.

Average People Also Confess

Victims of false confessions include average adults. On June 6, 2004, three year old Riley Fox disappeared from her home. Authorities found her body in nearby woods. Someone had sexually assaulted and murdered her[6]. Prosecutors initially charged her father, Kevin Fox, with the child’s murder. They made their charging decision based almost entirely the father’s videotaped confession. That confession was false.

Kevin Fox spent eight months in prison before DNA evidence cleared him of the murder. The actual murderer, Scott Eby, later confessed to killing the girl. The Fox family won $15 million in a law suit. The state is still appealing the verdict.

Unfortunately, stories like Dassey’s and the others mentioned are not anomalies. They are a product of coercive and manipulative interrogation tactics. Tactics that are just as likely to induce a false confession, as elicit a true one. As any defense attorney will tell you, it is nearly impossible to overcome even a false confession at trial. Most jurors simply will not believe that an individual will confess to a crime that they did not commit. A lot of innocent people end up in prison as a result. Likewise, violent predators go free.

Remain Silent

People will be at risk until the coercive and manipulative Reid Method, and others like it, are prohibited. Protect yourself from a false confession by remaining silent and refusing to talk to police. An experienced criminal defense attorney will tell you that the single most important thing you can do if the police want to talk to you it to invoke your right to an attorney. This may seem counter-intuitive as an innocent person has nothing to hide. Tragically, the reality is that the police have been trained to get a confession, and using current interrogation methods they may just get it from you whether you are guilty or not.

[1] http://www.innocenceproject.org/causes/false-confessions-admissions/

[2] “The term ‘Reid Technique’ is a registered trademark of the firm John E. Reid and Associates, which offers training courses in the method they have devised. While the technique is widely used by law-enforcement agencies in North America, it has been criticized for its history of eliciting false confessions”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reid_technique

[3] A Criminal Injustice: A True Crime, a False Confession, and the Fight to Free Marty Tankleff, published by Ballantine Books in 2008

[4] Shattered Justice: A Savage Murder and the Death of Three Families’ Innocence. Avon Books. Philpin, John (July 25, 2006).

[5] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2661337/DNA-evidence-frees-man-prison-14-years-later.html

[6] http://abcnews.go.com/2020/riley-fox-parents-speak-scott-eby-charged-murder/story

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