A somber song abruptly ended the friendly, pre-event chatter in a packed auditorium at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law Wednesday when Sarah Marie Dillard imagined the struggle Brendan Dassey faces while serving a life sentence in a Wisconsin prison.
“Yes, I’m cleaning every plate, but I’d rather waste away,” she sang, backed by her bandmates. “At least a dead man can say he’s free.”
Dillard’s performance was part of Northwestern Law’s event “A True Story of False Confession,” where two of the school’s professors shared their experiences working on Dassey’s post-conviction relief. It also featured other scholars who explored the wider issue of false confessions to police.
Dassey, now 26, was convicted by a Wisconsin jury in March 2007 of first-degree intentional homicide, mutilation of a corpse and first-degree sexual assault against then-25-year-old Theresa Halbach.
The conviction of the learning-disabled teen has stirred debate across the country after his story was featured in the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer.”
The series documented several videotaped police interrogations of Dassey where the teen confessed to assisting his uncle, Steven Avery, sexually assault and murder Halbach.
In a presentation and subsequent panel discussion, professors Laura Hepokoski Nirider, a co-director of the school’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, and Steven A. Drizin, the assistant dean of the Bluhm Legal Clinic, said Dassey’s confession is widely viewed to be coerced — force-fed to him in pieces by Manitowoc County police, so he could regurgitate information amounting to an admission of guilt.
A Wisconsin appellate court and the state’s Supreme Court have declined to hear Dassey’s appeal on such grounds. But Nirider and Drizin said they hope a federal judge in Milwaukee will grant a writ of habeas corpus to force the state to examine the conviction and determine whether Dassey was illegally imprisoned.
The two professors suggested false confessions among youths are not as rare as many believe, and they discussed some of the proposed reforms to avoid them.
Nirider and some of her colleagues have worked with the International Association of Chiefs of Police to create the first-ever juvenile interrogations protocol, which aims to prevent youth false confessions. Among other suggestions, it calls for police to never make promises of help if a suspect tells the truth, never disclose facts of a crime to a suspect and never let a juvenile suspect go into an interrogation without a parent or lawyer present.
While the protocol is applicable to any juvenile interrogation, Nirider said, it also points exactly to what went wrong in Dassey’s interrogation.
Several states across the country have either adopted or introduced legislation that would require a parent or lawyer to be present during a child’s interrogation.
The panel said false confessions typically come from psychological pressure put on a suspect — providing the suspect with false hope of a way out of the situation and employing a fact-feeding tactic to obtain what police already believe to be the truth in a case.
While that strategy can influence any kind of suspect to falsely confess, juveniles and mentally disabled suspects tend to be more vulnerable to it, panelists agreed.
But it is particularly devastating to someone like Dassey “who is just a kid in school who always gets the answer wrong but really wants to get it right,” Nirider said.
Nirider and Drizin said they believe false confessions stem from three errors police make during the interrogation process.
Wednesday’s presentation outlined examples the two identified as errors in Dassey’s interrogation and how it impacted what police called his confession.
Many law enforcement agencies use the “Reid Technique of Interviewing and Interrogation,” a method developed by a former Chicago police officer.
That technique outlines phrases such as “I don’t know” and “I don’t recall” and body language like a slouched posture as examples of instances in which a suspect could be lying.
Those characteristics were present in Dassey’s interrogation, Nirider said, and they likely contributed to the misidentification error that contributed to his confession.
“I think what was happening in that interrogation room is the officers were using this notion of behavioral analysis to make judgments based on his choice of words,” she said.
Drizin said police are also allowed to suggest they have more evidence than what currently exists, or perhaps already know the suspect committed the crime, to make the suspect feel backed into a corner or forced to admit to the crime.
That behavior contributes to “coercion error,” in the duo’s terms, which is also present in Dassey’s interrogation video as officers told him they already knew he committed the crime — they just needed to hear it from his mouth.
But contamination is perhaps the most identifiable error in Dassey’s interrogations, they said.
Over several tense minutes, the audience watched the tape as police seemed to struggle in getting Dassey to relay the exact narrative they hoped to obtain from him.
“What else was done to (Halbach’s) head?” the officers asked. “What’d (Avery) make you do? Who shot her in the head? Did (Avery) go into the engine? Did he look at it at all?”
It was one of the worst instances of case contamination that Drizin said he has seen in more than 20 years of examining interrogations.
“They knew they needed this information, and they wanted it in the worst way. And they got it in the worst way,” he said.
During the panel, forensic psychologist Antoinette Kavanaugh stressed the importance of putting lawyers in the interrogation rooms with juvenile suspects. Parents might not always have the proper understanding to recognize the adversarial nature of the interrogation process, she said.
“So frequently I’ve seen parents whose understanding of the legal system and of their Miranda rights are sometimes, unfortunately, at the level of their child’s because they haven’t gone through it themselves,” she said. “Parents being present is certainly not enough, and if we stop there, this will continue to happen.”
However, panelist and former Cook County prosecutor Robert J. Milan said that police wouldn’t have been able to obtain that confession from Dassey had his mother been present the day of his questioning.
“Those long, long delays when the kid is saying ‘I didn’t do it’ and (the police say) ‘the head, the head, c’mon Brendan, the head,’ I believe she would have stopped it,” he said.
Regardless of stances on who should be present, Nirider said the legislation being considered in some states is crucial to juvenile justice and should turn into public policy across the country.
“Let’s get this moving in Illinois. Let’s get this moving in Wisconsin. Let’s get this moving around the country because we cannot have another Brendan Dassey,” she said.