making a murderer

The Science Behind Brendan Dassey’s Agonizing Confession in Making a Murderer

Photo: Netflix

Ever since it went online a few weeks ago, the internet has been abuzz about Making a Murderer, an insanely gripping ten-part true-crime documentary on Netflix. It tells the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who — and this is going to be a pretty spoiler-heavy post, so you might want to click out if you haven’t watched yet and plan to — was convicted of a rape he didn’t commit in 1985 on astoundingly flimsy evidence.

After 18 years, Avery was freed by DNA evidence, but in a bizarre twist, he was accused in 2005 of another brutal crime, the murder of a young photographer whose cremains were found on his family’s sprawling auto-salvage lot. Again, he was convicted, and this time around, his nephew, the then-teenage Brendan Dassey, was also sent to prison for his role. As much of the internet commentariat has pointed out, while there are major holes in Avery’s case, some of them pointing to dark theories involving police misconduct — Vulture has your details — there just is no case against Dassey when it comes to credible evidence or the timeline presented by prosecutors.

Well, except for the fact that he confessed. Without a lawyer present, the quiet Dassey, whose IQ puts him near the range for intellectual disability, was pretty clearly cowed by investigators into a fabricated story, in which he helped his uncle first sexually assault Halbach and then murder her (there is no forensic evidence supporting the gruesome story spun by the prosecutors who convinced jurors to convict Dassey). In the parts of the recording included by the filmmakers, it’s pretty clear that it’s the investigators, not Dassey, who are providing the vast majority of the “details” of the murder, and that they simply keep wearing him down until he tells them what they want to hear.

It’s infuriating to watch. It’s also an example of a really weird quirk of human nature: It’s not particularly difficult to get people to confess to stuff they didn’t do. If you want to better understand why, there’s a 2013 New Yorker article on this very subject that’s an absolute must-read, especially now that the full four-hour Dassey interrogation is online. (Though if you’re mad about young Brendan, be forewarned that this article will likely only make you madder.)

In the article, Douglas Starr lays out the history and methodology of the so-called Reid Technique, an interrogation style centered around reading suspects’ nonverbal cues for signs of lying and wearing down their psychological resistance. For a variety of reasons, researchers now know, the Reid Technique is quite likely to induce false confessions at an alarming rate, and it’s premised on the supported notion that nonverbal cues are true indicators of dishonesty rather than nervousness. Unfortunately, it’s caught on in a big way, both in the U.S. and around the world.

Here’s a scene from an interrogation that helped the technique’s founder, John Reid, make a name for himself. He was interrogating Darrel Parker, who found his wife dead in their Lincoln, Nebraska, home in 1955: 

Reid hooked Parker up to the polygraph and started asking questions. Parker couldn’t see the movement of the needles, but each time he answered a question about the murder Reid told him that he was lying. As the hours wore on, Reid began to introduce a story. Contrary to appearances, he said, the Parkers’ marriage was not a happy one. Nancy refused to give Parker the sex that he required, and she flirted with other men. One day, in a rage, Parker took what was rightfully his. After nine hours of interrogation, Parker broke down and confessed. He recanted the next day, but a jury found him guilty of murder and sentenced him to life in prison.

Only it turns out none of that ever happened. Another man killed Parker’s wife, and Parker spent 15 years in prison for no reason before being freed.

The similarities to Dassey’s case are striking, even if the details are different and the investigations separated by half a century: Through simple persistence, interrogators were able to introduce story lines that had no bearing on reality, but that a vulnerable suspect, tired and confused and increasingly desperate, eventually agreed had happened.

Starr’s article nicely summarizes the research that would debunk the accuracy of this technique, and also points to an alternative known as PEACE, or Preparation and Planning, Engage and Explain, Account, Closure, Evaluate (it doesn’t roll off the tongue). It was introduced to British police in 1992 “after a flurry of false-confession scandals” there.

The method differed dramatically from previous practices. Police were instructed not to try to obtain confessions but to use the interview as a way to gather evidence and information, almost as a journalist would. They were to focus on content rather than on nonverbal behavior, and were taught not to pay attention to anxiety, since it does not correlate with lying. Instead, police were trained to ask open-ended questions to elicit the whole story, and then go back over the details in a variety of ways to find inconsistencies. For the suspect, lying creates a cognitive load — it takes energy to juggle the details of a fake story. Part of the process involved thorough preparation: police learned to spend hours drawing diagrams of the route they hoped an interview would take. Bluffing about evidence was prohibited. “We were not allowed to lie, coerce, or minimize,” Andy Griffiths, a detective superintendent with the Sussex Police Department, told me. Their job was simply to get as much information as possible, which, along with corroborating evidence, would either inculpate the suspect or set him free.

It’s striking how different a technique this is — and how much less likely it seems, at least on paper, to cause a false confession in a case like Dassey’s. In Making a Murderer, after all, Dassey does end up telling a pretty consistent, self-exculpating story about what happened — but only when he’s not being leaned on hard by interrogators manipulating him. Had those interrogators carefully asked him to build the narrative of what had happened, they wouldn’t have noticed any obvious holes.

Here and there in the U.S., similar reform efforts are under way. But they haven’t fully caught on, notes Starr. Referring to the pioneering false-confession researcher Saul Kassin, he writes: “The culture of confrontation, he feels, is too embedded in our society.”

The Science Behind Brendan Dassey’s Confession