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‘Making a Murderer’ interrogation of intellectually disabled teen not unique, says FIU expert

‘Making a Murderer’ interrogation of intellectually disabled teen not unique, says FIU expert

Psychologist Lindsay C. Malloy has devoted her career to improving the treatment of children in the legal system, including the development of better interrogation methods and interviewing techniques. As people across the United States express outrage over the interrogation methods used to question Steven Avery’s intellectually disabled nephew Brendan Dassey in the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer,” Malloy reminds readers not to forget the countless numbers of children who face interrogations every day. Dassey, who was 16 years-old at the time, was convicted as an accomplice in the murder.

February 3, 2016 at 8:00am

The ten-part documentary “Making a Murderer” explores the story of Steven Avery, who served 18 years in prison for the sexual assault and attempted murder of Penny Beerntsen, before being exonerated in 2003. In 2005, he was arrested in connection with the murder of Teresa Halbach, a local photographer, and convicted in 2007. The series also covers the arrest, prosecution, and conviction of Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey. Credit: Netflix.


By Lindsay S. Malloy

People are outraged by the interrogation of Brendan Dassey, the intellectually disabled 16-year-old whose case is featured in the Netflix documentary  Making a Murderer. I hate to break it to you — but his experience was not unique.

In the United States, police can generally interrogate juvenile suspects just like adults. And they do.

In our recent research, most incarcerated teens reported experiencing high pressure interrogations without lawyers or parents present. More than 80 percent described being threatened by police, including the possibility of being raped or killed in jail (e.g., They said I would be someone’s bitch in prison) or being tried as an adult. One teen revealed police told  

him he would never see his family again if he did not confess, while another claimed an officer threatened to shoot him in the face. More than 70 percent of teens reported that police had “befriended” them, indicating a desire to “help” them during the interrogation. Nearly 40 percent claimed police had refused to allow a break, phone call, or opportunity to speak with a lawyer. While it’s possible the juveniles made false claims to our research team, our findings are consistent with surveys asking police how they interrogate youth and studies of videotaped interrogations.

Why is this problematic? Because juveniles are not adults. They are more suggestible, more susceptible to social influence. They make immature judgments, and evaluate reward and risk differently, weighing immediate rewards (e.g., escaping the stressful interrogation) more heavily than the potential long- term negative consequences of their actions (e.g., incarceration). Their brains are anatomically different. The same characteristics that have made adolescents ineligible for the death penalty enhance their vulnerability in the interrogation room. Teens are no match for the psychologically manipulative interrogation techniques which are known to lead to false confessions. It’s an unfair fight with very real consequences. We know from exoneration cases and the scientific laboratory that  youth are especially vulnerable to providing false confessions. Our recent research revealed alarming rates with over a third of incarcerated juveniles reporting a prior false confession or a false guilty plea, primarily due to police pressure or the belief that they would be treated more leniently as a result. In Brendan’s interrogation, it’s easy to see why he would expect leniency for confessing with detectives telling him:

  • “We’ll stand behind you no matter what you did…We’re in your corner…We’re on your side.”
  • “By you talking with us it’s helping you because the honest person is the one that’s gonna get a better deal out of everything…Honesty is the only thing that will set you free.”

Teens like Brendan Dassey — with the double whammy of adolescent immaturity and intellectual disability — are especially vulnerable in police interrogations. Unfortunately, his case is not unique in this respect either. Justice system-involved youth are disproportionately likely to have intellectual impairments, which heighten the risk for false confession, perhaps due to the greater suggestibility and desire to appease authority figures typical of individuals with intellectual impairments. In the interrogation context, youth, especially those with intellectual disabilities, may falsely confess to please the police or because their memory or resolve fails them in the face of highly suggestive questions, implications of leniency, repeated accusations, attempts to play suspects off one another, lengthy interrogations, and deceit — all legally permissible, even with intellectually disabled teens. As Brendan tells his mother, “They got in my head.”

For juvenile suspects, their risk often doesn’t end there. Mental health issues are over-represented among juvenile offenders  and among false confessors. Furthermore, nearly 40 percent of teens in our study reported being intoxicated when interrogated by police, further diminishing their decision-making abilities.  In short, typically-developing teenagers lack the sophistication to cope with interrogation tactics, but the youth winding up in interrogation rooms are liable to be even more vulnerable.

We should change how we interrogate youth, especially youth like Brendan Dassey. Our interrogation procedures should reflect their developmental limitations and capacities. Law enforcement, attorneys, judges, and jurors should fully understand how development can play out in a high-stakes interrogation.

I understand the outrage for how Brendan Dassey was questioned. Let’s not forget his 1 million peers who are arrested every year in the United States.