Brendan Dassey is serving a life sentence at Columbia Correctional Institute in Wisconsin following his conviction for the murder of Teresa Halbach. In April 2007, a jury found Dassey guilty of first-degree intentional homicide, second-degree sexual assault and mutilation of a corpse. Dassey’s confession to investigators formed the basis of the prosecution’s case.
In part one of this-two-part series, we looked at Brendan’s disability and how it affected statements he made to investigators. We examined how police questioned Brendan. In this last part, we look at what protections should be in place to help juveniles with learning disabilities like Brendan.
Whether you believe Brendan Dassey is guilty or not, it is hard to reconcile the techniques used by investigators with claims he made a voluntary confession. This is particularly true because Brendan was a minor with low intelligence and a learning disability. So what should police do when interrogating a minor with a disability?
Adult interrogation methods, as shown in Making a Murderer, are inappropriate for juveniles like Brendan Dassey
In their Writ of Habeas Corpus, Brendan’s attorneys argue that Brendan’s “youthfulness” made him “more vulnerable to commonly used police interrogation tactics.” At the time of his interrogations, Brendan was a 16-year-old adolescent. The interrogation techniques used in Brendan’s case are the same as those used for adults. However, significant biological differences in the brains of adults and adolescents make these techniques inappropriate for use with children.
A growing body of scientific research shows “striking changes” in brain development during adolescence. University of Pittsburgh researchers found “adolescents can exert adult-like control over their behavior, but that they have limitations regarding the consistency with which they can generate optimal responses compared to adults. Moreover … the brain circuitry supporting mature cognitive (inhibitory) control is still undergoing development.” Other studies show adolescents are more susceptible to “coercive pressure.”
In Reducing Risks: An Executives’ Guide to Effective Juvenile Interview and Interrogation, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (ICAP) explains the need to use different interview techniques with children. It acknowledges the brain differences between adolescents and adults stating these differences “make adolescents particularly likely to respond to the fear and stress of interrogation by making involuntary or false statements.”
When questioning young people like Brendan, ICAP recommends interrogators avoid:
- Leading questions.
- Promises of leniency.
- Using deceptive statements.
- Threats of harm.
As shown in part one, Agent Fassbender and Investigator Wiegert made many promises of leniency when questioning Dassey. They fed information to Dassey with leading questions and false statements. Fassbender and Wiegert’s interrogation tactics were wrong because Brendan’s youth increased his suggestibility and vulnerability to their coercive pressure.
Investigators should use different interrogation tactics when questioning a person who has a learning disability
According to research, people with learning disabilities are “much more likely to yield to leading questions.” In addition, they are more likely to confabulate and be acquiescent. Because of issues of suggestibility, confabulation and acquiescence, The Arc of Midland recommends police do the following when interviewing someone with a learning disability:
- Speak directly to the person.
- Keep sentences short.
- Use simple language.
- Speak slowly and clearly.
- Ask for concrete descriptions (colors, clothing, etc.).
- Whenever possible use pictures, symbols and actions to help convey meaning.
- Be patient.
- Take time when giving or asking for information.
- Avoid confusing questions about reasons for behavior.
- Repeat or rephrase questions.
- Use calm, firm persistence.
- Do not ask leading questions.
- Ask open-ended questions.
Brendan’s learning disability increased his suggestibility to the leading questions posed by Fassbender and Wiegert. Their methods of interrogating Brendan did not take into account his vulnerability to their pressures.
The Miranda warning given to Brendan should have been explained to him with simple words.
Miranda warnings are only relevant if people understand them. Research shows adolescents with lower IQs have an impaired understanding and appreciation of their Miranda warnings. Because of these problems with Miranda warnings The Arc recommends police refrain from questioning these suspects until their lawyer is present. In addition, it advises police officers to:
- Use simple words and change the warning to help the person understand.
- Ask the person to repeat each phrase of the Miranda warning using his or her own words.
- Check for understanding by asking questions that require the person to use reasoning abilities and think conceptually.
ICAP recommends police use special care when giving Miranda warnings to juveniles stating, “Even intelligent children and teenagers often do not fully understand their Miranda rights.” ICAP recommends officers:
- Read each warning slowly, stopping to ask the child after each individual warning to explain it back in his or her own words.
- Read juveniles simplified Miranda warnings that require only a third-grade comprehension level.
A responsible adult should have been present during Brendan’s questioning
Although not legally required, ICAP recommends a parent or other friendly adult be present during police questioning of juveniles. In addition, the adult and child should have the opportunity to speak privately.
- Tell the police officer his or her name, address and age.
- Ask police to call a parent, guardian or adult you specify and say the child needs to speak to an attorney.
- Say he or she cannot answer questions unless an adult who knows him or her is present.
- Ask if they are under arrest or free to leave.
An attorney or other responsible adult should have been present when Brendan was questioned. When Fassbender and Wiegert interrogated him, Brendan did not have anyone looking out for his interests. He needed a responsible adult or attorney to make sure he understood his legal rights and the ramifications of his answers.
Police questioned Brendan the same way they would question an adult of average intelligence without a disability. They did not take any of the precautions or steps described above to make sure Brendan provided accurate information. Brendan’s responses to their questions are consistent with those identified in studies of juveniles and people with learning disabilities.
The inconsistencies in Brendan’s statements along with his adoption of “facts” from leading questions show the degree of Brendan’s vulnerability. His statement to his mother that investigators “got inside his head” illustrates his suggestibility. If police took appropriate precautions to protect Brendan because of his age and disability would he be in Columbia Correctional Institute today? Unfortunately we will never know.
Making a Murderer is streaming on Netflix.
I am a member of the Netflix Stream Team and have received a free Netflix subscription and streaming device as part of my membership. All opinions expressed within this post are my own.