Juvenile Interrogations: The Story of Brendan Dassey

It is one thing for an attorney to tell a client that they shouldn’t talk to the police, however the reality is that it is difficult for people to shake their belief that the police are going to help them during the investigation. From a young age we are told that the police are crusaders of justice and are going to do what is fair. In short, we are taught that the police are there to help you. While police frequently do fantastic work, when you are the one being charged with an offense, the tables turn. The police are no longer there to help you, rather their job becomes gathering evidence to prosecute you. When dealing with juveniles accused of a crime, the juvenile will often feel as though they have no choice but to speak with the police. After all, the police are authority figures. When a police officer asks a question, a juvenile (and frankly, most adults will feel the same way) will believe that an answer is required.

This brings us to the case of Brendan Dassey. Brendan Dassey was a 16-year-old when he was accused of murder. A year later at 17 years old, Mr. Dassey was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Mr. Dassey wouldn’t be eligible for parole until 2048, at which point he would be 59 years old. In 2015 Mr. Dassey’s case garnered worldwide media attention along with the trial of his uncle, Steven Avery, in the critically acclaimed Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer”. On August 12, 2016 Mr. Dassey’s case was overturned and his release ordered pending an appeal by the State. On November 14th, 2016 Brendan Dassey was released on his own recognizance.

So why was Mr. Dassey convicted in the first place and what was the cause of his conviction being overturned? The court in their decision wrote the following:

The United States Supreme Court “has long held that certain interrogation techniques, either in isolation or as applied to the unique characteristics of a particular suspect, are so offensive to a civilized system of justice that they must be condemned under the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.” This includes the sorts of means that are “revolting to the sense of justice,” such as “beatings and other forms of physical and psychological torture. But the Constitution prohibits far more than barbaric and torturous conduct. Indeed, more subtle police pressures such as a false promise of leniency may render a confession involuntary.1

During their analysis the court wrote:

Not only did Dassey not have the benefit of an adult present to look out for his interests, the investigators exploited the absence of such an adult by repeatedly suggesting that they were looking out for his interests: “I wanna assure you that Mark and I both are in your corner, we're on your side ...” (ECF No. 19-25 at 16), and “... I'm your friend right now, but I ... gotta believe in you and if I don't believe in you, I can't go to bat for you.” (ECF No. 19-25 at 23.)

In the interview just two days earlier, on February 27, 2006, where Dassey was also unaccompanied by an adult, Fassbender went even further:

I've got ... kids somewhat your age, I'm lookin' at you and I see you in him and I see him in you, I really do, and I know how that would hurt me too. ... Mark and I, yeah we're cops, we're investigators and stuff like that, but I'm not right now. I'm a father that has a kid your age too. I wanna be here for you. There's nothing I'd like more than to come over and give you a hug cuz I know you're hurtin'.2

The police did everything they could to make Mr. Dassey believe that they were firmly on his side and that they would “go to bat for him.” The investigators made further promises telling Mr. Dassey that he had nothing to worry about and that they believed him. As the interview continued, for a period of over 3 hours, the investigators continually reassured Mr. Dassey that if he told them what they already knew concerning the murder, “the truth would set him free.” The court wrote that:

More than merely assuring Dassey that he would not be punished if he admitted participating in the offenses, the investigators suggested to Dassey that he would be punished if he did not tell “the truth.” (See, e.g., ECF No. 19-25 at 17, 23, 54, 102.) However, because the investigators' assertions that they already knew what happened were often false, “the truth” to the investigators was often merely whichever of Dassey's version of events they eventually accepted. Thus, as long as Dassey told a version the investigators accepted as “the truth,” he was led to believe he had no fear of negative consequences. But if the investigators did not accept as true the story Dassey told them, he was told there would be repercussions.3

There is only one correct version of the truth and that is the one that the police believe. If Mr. Dassey chose to go along with that version of the truth, the investigators would help him. If he went against their version of the truth, then there would be serious repercussions. Ultimately the court found that based on a variety of factors, such as Mr. Dassey’s age and the fact that he had a below average IQ, the confession he gave the police was the result of illegal coercion.

The only thing that sets Mr. Dassey’s case apart from the thousands of other juvenile cases is the fact that his case was at the center of an award-winning Netflix series. What the case does is open a window into police interrogation tactics and how those impact juvenile suspects. What Mr. Dassey was subjected to by the police is not unique to him but rather is an example of the Reid technique of interrogations which is used by law enforcement agencies throughout the United States. These methods apply tremendous amounts of pressure of the suspect to confess their “crimes” and has received criticism for encouraging false confessions. These problems are compounded when the suspect is a juvenile. Courts have become cognizant to the fact that this type of interrogation is more likely to overwhelm a juvenile and that false confessions are a considerable risk when children are interrogated. In the case of Mr. Dassey, the court ultimately recognized the coercive nature of his interview, but not until after Mr. Dassey had spent 9 years in prison for the offense. Unfortunately, there are many other juveniles who were subjected to similar coercive techniques who continue to serve their sentences throughout the United States.

At Stuckle and Associates we spend a great deal of time talking to both the juvenile whom we are representing as well as the parents, explaining the serious risks and repercussions involved with talking to the police. These recommendations from us are to prevent our juvenile clients from being subjected to the same thing that Mr. Dassey had to endure. If your child has a case in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex and would like more information on our services, please contact us for a free consultation.

1. Dassey v. Dittmann, No. 14-CV-1310, 2016 WL 4257386, at *24 (E.D. Wis. Aug. 12, 2016)

2. Id.

3. Id.