Tyler Edmonds, Bobby Johnson, Davontae Sanford, Marty Tankleff, Jeffrey Deskovic, Anthony Caravella and Travis Hayes. You probably don't recognize their faces. Together, they served 89 years for murders that they didn't commit; murders that they falsely confessed to committing when they were teenagers.
I'm a forensic developmental psychologist, and I study these types of cases. As a researcher, a professor and a new parent, my goal is to conduct scientific research that helps us understand how kids function in a legal system that was designed for adults.
In March of 2006, police interrogated Brendan Dassey, a 16-year-old high school student with an IQ around 70, putting him in the range of intellectual disability. So here's just a brief snippet of his four-hour interrogation.
Police 1: Brendan, be honest. I told you before that's the only thing that's going to help you here. We already know what happened, OK?
Police 2: If we don't get honesty here—I'm your friend right now, but I've got to believe in you, and if I don't believe in you, I can't go to bat for you. OK? You're nodding. Tell us what happened.
P1: Your mom said you'd be honest with us.
P2: And she's behind you 100 percent no matter what happens here.
P1: That's what she said, because she thinks you know more, too.
P2: We're in your corner.
P1: We already know what happened, now tell us exactly. Don't lie.
They told Brendan that honesty would "set him free," but they were completely convinced of his guilt at that point. So by honesty, they meant a confession, and his confession would definitely not end up setting him free. They eventually got a confession from Brendan that didn't really make sense, didn't match much of the physical evidence of the crime and is widely believed to be false. Still, it was enough to convict Brendan and sentence him to life in prison for murder and sexual assault in 2007. There was no physical evidence against Brendan at all. It was nothing more than his own words that sent him to prison for nearly a decade, until a judge overturned his conviction just a few months ago.
The Dassey case is unique because it made its way into a Netflix series, called "Making a Murderer," which I'm sure many of you saw, and if you haven't, you should definitely watch it. The Dassey case is also unique because it led to such intense public outrage. People were very angry about how Brendan was questioned, and many assumed that his interrogation had to have been illegal. It wasn't illegal. As someone who's a researcher in this area and is familiar with police interrogation training manuals, I wasn't really surprised by what I saw. The fact is, Dassey's interrogation itself is actually not all that unique, and to be honest with you, I've seen worse. So I understand the public outcry about injustice in Brendan Dassey's individual case. But let's not forget that approximately one million or so of his peers are arrested every year in the United States and may be subjected to similar interrogation techniques, techniques that we know increase the risk for false confession.
And I know many people are going to struggle with that term, "false confession," and with believing that false confessions actually occur. And I get that. It's very shocking and counterintuitive: Why would someone confess and even give gruesome details about a horrifying crime like rape or murder if they hadn't actually done it? It makes no sense.
And the fact is, we can never know precisely how often false confessions occur. But what we do know is that false confessions or admissions were present in approximately 25 percent of wrongful convictions of people later exonerated by DNA evidence. Turns out, they were innocent. These cases are crystal clear because we have the DNA. So they didn't do the crime, and yet one-quarter of them confessed to it anyway. And at this point, from countless research studies, we have a pretty good sense of why people falsely confess, and why some people, like Brendan Dassey, are at greater risk for doing so.
We know that youth are especially vulnerable to providing false confessions. In one study of exonerations, for example, only eight percent of adults had falsely confessed, but 42 percent of juveniles had done so. Of course, if we're just looking at wrongful convictions and exonerations, we're only getting part of the story. Left out, for instance, are the many cases that are resolved by guilty pleas, not trials. From TV and news headlines, you may think that trials are the norm in our legal system, but the reality is that 97 percent of legal cases in the US are resolved by pleas, not trials. Ninety-seven percent. Also left out will be confessions to more minor types of crimes that don't typically involve DNA evidence and aren't usually reviewed or appealed following a conviction. So for this reason, many refer to the false confessions we actually do know about as the tip of a much larger iceberg.
In our research, we found alarming rates of false confession among teenagers. We interviewed almost 200 incarcerated 14-to-17-year-olds, and 17 percent of them reported that they'd made at least one false confession to police. What's also shocking to most is that, in interrogations in the US, police are allowed to interrogate juveniles just like adults. So they can lie to them—blatant lies like, "We have your fingerprints, we have your DNA; your friend is down the hall saying that this was all your idea."
Lying to suspects is banned in the UK, for example, but legal here in the US, even with intellectually impaired teens like Brendan Dassey. In our research, most of the incarcerated teens that we interviewed reported experiencing high-pressure police interrogations without lawyers or parents present. More than 80 percent described having been threatened by the police, including with the possibility of being raped or killed in jail or being tried as an adult. These maximization strategies are designed to make suspects feel like denials are pointless and confession is the only option. So you may have heard of playing the role of "good cop/bad cop," right? Well, this is bad cop.
Juveniles are more suggestible and susceptible to social influence, like the intense pressure accusations and suggestions coming from authority figures in interrogations. More than 70 percent of the teens in our study said that the police had tried to "befriend" them or indicate a desire to help them out during the interrogation. These are referred to as "minimization strategies," and they're designed to convey sympathy and understanding to the suspect, and they imply that a confession will result in more lenient treatment. So in the classic good-cop-bad-cop oversimplification of police interrogations, this is "good cop."
P1: Honesty here, Brendan, is the thing that's going to help you, OK? No matter what you did, we can work through that, OK? We can't make any promises, but we'll stand behind you no matter what you did, OK?
"No matter what you did, we can work through that." Hints of leniency like you just saw with Brendan are especially powerful among adolescents, in part because they evaluate reward and risk differently than adults do. Confessing brings an immediate reward to the suspect, right? Now the stressful, unpleasant interrogation is over. So confessing may seem like the best option to most teens, who are less focused on that long-term risk of conviction and punishment down the road as a result of that confession.
I think we can all agree that thoughtful, long-term planning is not a strength of most teenagers that we know. And by and large, the legal system seems to get that young victims and witnesses should be treated differently than adults. But when it comes to young suspects, it's like the kid gloves come off. And treating juveniles as though they're adults in interrogations is a problem, because literally hundreds of psychological and neuroscientific studies tell us that juveniles do not think like adults, they do not behave like adults, and they're not built like adults. Adolescent brains are different from adult brains—even anatomically. So there are important changes happening in the structure and function of the brain during adolescence, especially in the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system, and these are areas that are crucial for things like self-control, decision-making, emotion processing and regulation and sensitivity to reward and risk, all of which can affect how you function in a stressful circumstance, like a police interrogation.
We need to educate law enforcement, attorneys, judges and jurors on juveniles' developmental limitations and how they can play out in a high-stakes interrogation. In one national survey of police officers, 75 percent of them actually requested specialized training in how to talk to children and adolescents—most of them had had none.
We also need to consider having special protections in place for juveniles. In his 91-page decision to overturn Dassey's conviction earlier this year, the judge made a big deal about the fact that Dassey had no parent or other allied adult in the interrogation room with him. So here's a clip of Brendan talking to his mom after he confessed, when it was obviously far too late for him.
Mom: What do you mean?
Brendan: Like, if his story is, like, different, like I never did nothing or something.
M: Did you? Huh?
B: Not really.
M: What do you mean, "Not really"?
B: They got into my head.
So he sums it up pretty beautifully there: "They got into my head." We don't know if the outcome would have been different for Brendan if his mom had been in the interrogation room with him. But it's certainly possible. In our research, only seven percent of incarcerated teens, most of whom had had numerous encounters with police, had ever had a parent or attorney in the room with them when they were questioned as a suspect. Few had ever asked for a parent or attorney to be present.
And you see this in lower-stake situations, too. We did a mock interrogation experiment in our lab here at FIU—with parent permission for all minors, of course, and all the appropriate ethical approvals. We falsely accused teens and adults of cheating on a study task—an academic dishonesty offense—that we told them was as serious as cheating in a class. In reality, participants had witnessed a peer cheat, someone who was actually part of our research team and was allegedly on academic probation. And we gave everyone a tough choice: you can lose your extra credit for participating in the study or accuse your peer, who will probably be expelled because of his academic probation status. Of course, in reality, none of these consequences would have panned out, and we fully debriefed all of the participants afterward. But most teenagers—59 percent of them—signed the confession statement, falsely taking responsibility for the cheating. Only three teens out of 74, or about four percent of them, asked to talk to a parent when we accused them of cheating, despite the fact that for most of them, their parent was literally sitting in the next room during the study.
Of course, cheating is far from murder, and I know that. But it's interesting that so many teens, significantly more teens than adults, signed the confession saying that they cheated. They hadn't cheated, but they signed this form anyway saying that they had, rarely attempting to involve a parent in the situation. Other studies tell the same story. Over 90 percent of juveniles waive their Miranda rights and submit to police questioning without lawyers or parents present. In England and Wales, interrogations of juveniles must be conducted in the presence of an "appropriate adult," like a parent, guardian or social worker. And this isn't something youth have to ask for—which is great, because research shows that they won't—it's automatic.
Now, having an appropriate adult safeguard for juveniles here in the US would not be a cure-all for improving police questioning of youth. Unfortunately, parents often lack the knowledge and legal sophistication to appropriately advise their children. You can just look at the case of the Central Park Five: five teenagers who falsely confessed to a brutal gang rape in 1989, with their parents by their sides. And it took over a decade to clear their names. So the appropriate adult really should be an attorney or perhaps a trained child advocate. Overturning Dassey's conviction, the judge pointed out that there's no federal law requiring that the police even inform a juvenile's parent that the juvenile is being questioned or honor that juvenile's request to have a parent in the room.
So if you think about all of this together for a second: as a country, we've decided that juveniles cannot be trusted with things like voting, buying cigarettes, attending an R-rated movie or driving, but they can make the judgment call to waive their Miranda rights, rights that we know from research, most teens don't understand or appreciate. And parents in the room: depending on the state that you live in, your child can potentially waive these rights without your knowledge and without consulting any adult first.
Now, no one—and certainly not me—wants to prevent police from doing the very important investigative work that they do every day. But we need to make sure that they have appropriate training for talking to youth. As a parent and as a researcher, I think we can do better. I think we can take steps to prevent another Brendan Dassey, while still getting the crucial information that we need from children and teens to solve crimes.