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  • Tyler Edmonds,

  • Bobby Johnson,

  • Davontae Sanford,

  • Marty Tankleff,

  • Jeffrey Deskovic,

  • Anthony Caravella

  • and Travis Hayes.

  • You probably don't recognize their faces.

  • Together, they served 89 years for murders that they didn't commit;

  • murders that they falsely confessed to committing when they were teenagers.

  • I'm a forensic developmental psychologist,

  • and I study these types of cases.

  • As a researcher,

  • a professor

  • and a new parent,

  • my goal is to conduct scientific research that helps us understand

  • how kids function in a legal system that was designed for adults.

  • In March of 2006,

  • police interrogated Brendan Dassey,

  • a 16-year-old high school student with an IQ around 70,

  • putting him in the range of intellectual disability.

  • So here's just a brief snippet of his four-hour interrogation.

  • (Video) Police 1: Brendan, be honest.

  • I told you before that's the only thing that's going to help you here.

  • We already know what happened, OK?

  • Police 2: If we don't get honesty here --

  • I'm your friend right now,

  • but I've got to believe in you,

  • and if I don't believe in you,

  • I can't go to bat for you.

  • OK? You're nodding.

  • Tell us what happened.

  • P1: Your mom said you'd be honest with us.

  • P2: And she's behind you 100 percent no matter what happens here.

  • P1: That's what she said, because she thinks you know more, too.

  • P2: We're in your corner.

  • P1: We already know what happened, now tell us exactly. Don't lie.

  • Lindsay Malloy: They told Brendan that honesty would "set him free,"

  • but they were completely convinced of his guilt at that point.

  • So by honesty, they meant a confession,

  • and his confession would definitely not end up setting him free.

  • They eventually got a confession from Brendan

  • that didn't really make sense,

  • didn't match much of the physical evidence of the crime

  • and is widely believed to be false.

  • Still, it was enough to convict Brendan and sentence him to life in prison

  • for murder and sexual assault in 2007.

  • There was no physical evidence against Brendan at all.

  • It was nothing more than his own words

  • that sent him to prison for nearly a decade,

  • until a judge overturned his conviction just a few months ago.

  • The Dassey case is unique because it made its way into a Netflix series,

  • called "Making a Murderer,"

  • which I'm sure many of you saw,

  • and if you haven't, you should definitely watch it.

  • The Dassey case is also unique

  • because it led to such intense public outrage.

  • People were very angry about how Brendan was questioned,

  • and many assumed that his interrogation had to have been illegal.

  • It wasn't illegal.

  • As someone who's a researcher in this area

  • and is familiar with police interrogation training manuals,

  • I wasn't really surprised by what I saw.

  • The fact is, Dassey's interrogation itself is actually not all that unique,

  • and to be honest with you, I've seen worse.

  • So I understand the public outcry about injustice

  • in Brendan Dassey's individual case.

  • But let's not forget that approximately one million or so of his peers

  • are arrested every year in the United States

  • and may be subjected to similar interrogation techniques,

  • techniques that we know increase the risk for false confession.

  • And I know many people are going to struggle with that term,

  • "false confession,"

  • and with believing that false confessions actually occur.

  • And I get that.

  • It's very shocking and counterintuitive:

  • Why would someone confess and even give gruesome details

  • about a horrifying crime like rape or murder

  • if they hadn't actually done it?

  • It makes no sense.

  • And the fact is, we can never know precisely

  • how often false confessions occur.

  • But what we do know is that false confessions or admissions were present

  • in approximately 25 percent of wrongful convictions

  • of people later exonerated by DNA evidence.

  • Turns out, they were innocent.

  • These cases are crystal clear because we have the DNA.

  • So they didn't do the crime,

  • and yet one-quarter of them confessed to it anyway.

  • And at this point, from countless research studies,

  • we have a pretty good sense of why people falsely confess,

  • and why some people,

  • like Brendan Dassey,

  • are at greater risk for doing so.

  • We know that youth are especially vulnerable to providing false confessions.

  • In one study of exonerations, for example,

  • only eight percent of adults had falsely confessed,

  • but 42 percent of juveniles had done so.

  • Of course, if we're just looking at wrongful convictions and exonerations,

  • we're only getting part of the story.

  • Left out, for instance, are the many cases that are resolved by guilty pleas,

  • not trials.

  • From TV and news headlines,

  • you may think that trials are the norm in our legal system,

  • but the reality is that 97 percent of legal cases in the US

  • are resolved by pleas, not trials.

  • Ninety-seven percent.

  • Also left out will be confessions to more minor types of crimes

  • that don't typically involve DNA evidence

  • and aren't usually reviewed or appealed following a conviction.

  • So for this reason,

  • many refer to the false confessions we actually do know about

  • as the tip of a much larger iceberg.

  • In our research, we found alarming rates of false confession among teenagers.

  • We interviewed almost 200 incarcerated 14-to-17-year-olds,

  • and 17 percent of them reported

  • that they'd made at least one false confession to police.

  • What's also shocking to most is that,

  • in interrogations in the US,

  • police are allowed to interrogate juveniles just like adults.

  • So they can lie to them --

  • blatant lies like, "We have your fingerprints,

  • we have your DNA;

  • your friend is down the hall saying that this was all your idea."

  • Lying to suspects is banned in the UK, for example,

  • but legal here in the US,

  • even with intellectually impaired teens like Brendan Dassey.

  • In our research, most of the incarcerated teens that we interviewed

  • reported experiencing high-pressure police interrogations

  • without lawyers or parents present.

  • More than 80 percent described having been threatened by the police,

  • including with the possibility of being raped or killed in jail

  • or being tried as an adult.

  • These maximization strategies are designed

  • to make suspects feel like denials are pointless

  • and confession is the only option.

  • So you may have heard of playing the role of "good cop/bad cop," right?

  • Well, this is bad cop.

  • Juveniles are more suggestible and susceptible to social influence,

  • like the intense pressure accusations and suggestions

  • coming from authority figures in interrogations.

  • More than 70 percent of the teens in our study said

  • that the police had tried to "befriend" them

  • or indicate a desire to help them out during the interrogation.

  • These are referred to as "minimization strategies,"

  • and they're designed to convey sympathy and understanding to the suspect,

  • and they imply that a confession will result in more lenient treatment.

  • So in the classic good-cop-bad-cop oversimplification

  • of police interrogations,

  • this is "good cop."

  • (Video) P1: Honesty here, Brendan, is the thing that's going to help you, OK?

  • No matter what you did,

  • we can work through that, OK?

  • We can't make any promises,

  • but we'll stand behind you no matter what you did, OK?

  • LM: "No matter what you did, we can work through that."

  • Hints of leniency like you just saw with Brendan

  • are especially powerful among adolescents,

  • in part because they evaluate reward and risk differently than adults do.

  • Confessing brings an immediate reward to the suspect, right?

  • Now the stressful, unpleasant interrogation is over.

  • So confessing may seem like the best option to most teens,

  • who are less focused on that long-term risk of conviction and punishment

  • down the road

  • as a result of that confession.

  • I think we can all agree that thoughtful, long-term planning

  • is not a strength of most teenagers that we know.

  • And by and large, the legal system seems to get

  • that young victims and witnesses should be treated differently than adults.

  • But when it comes to young suspects, it's like the kid gloves come off.

  • And treating juveniles as though they're adults in interrogations

  • is a problem,

  • because literally hundreds

  • of psychological and neuroscientific studies

  • tell us that juveniles do not think like adults,

  • they do not behave like adults,

  • and they're not built like adults.

  • Adolescent brains are different from adult brains --

  • even anatomically.

  • So there are important changes happening

  • in the structure and function of the brain during adolescence,

  • especially in the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system,

  • and these are areas that are crucial for things like self-control,

  • decision-making,

  • emotion processing and regulation

  • and sensitivity to reward and risk,

  • all of which can affect how you function in a stressful circumstance,

  • like a police interrogation.

  • We need to educate law enforcement,

  • attorneys, judges and jurors

  • on juveniles' developmental limitations

  • and how they can play out in a high-stakes interrogation.

  • In one national survey of police officers,

  • 75 percent of them actually requested specialized training

  • in how to talk to children and adolescents --

  • most of them had had none.

  • We also need to consider having special protections in place for juveniles.

  • In his 91-page decision to overturn Dassey's conviction earlier this year,

  • the judge made a big deal about the fact that Dassey had no parent

  • or other allied adult

  • in the interrogation room with him.

  • So here's a clip of Brendan talking to his mom after he confessed,

  • when it was obviously far too late for him.

  • (Video) Mom: What do you mean?

  • Brendan: Like, if his story is, like, different,

  • like I never did nothing or something.

  • M: Did you?

  • Huh?

  • B: Not really.

  • M: What do you mean, "Not really"?

  • B: They got into my head.

  • LM: So he sums it up pretty beautifully there:

  • "They got into my head."

  • We don't know if the outcome would have been different for Brendan

  • if his mom had been in the interrogation room with him.

  • But it's certainly possible.

  • In our research, only seven percent of incarcerated teens,

  • most of whom had had numerous encounters with police,

  • had ever had a parent or attorney in the room with them

  • when they were questioned as a suspect.

  • Few had ever asked for a parent or attorney to be present.

  • And you see this in lower-stake situations, too.

  • We did a mock interrogation experiment in our lab here at FIU --

  • with parent permission for all minors, of course,

  • and all the appropriate ethical approvals.

  • We falsely accused teens and adults of cheating on a study task --

  • an academic dishonesty offense --

  • that we told them was as serious as cheating in a class.

  • In reality, participants had witnessed a peer cheat,

  • someone who was actually part of our research team

  • and was allegedly on academic probation.

  • And we gave everyone a tough choice:

  • you can lose your extra credit for participating in the study

  • or accuse your peer,

  • who will probably be expelled because of his academic probation status.

  • Of course, in reality, none of these consequences would have panned out,

  • and we fully debriefed all of the participants afterward.

  • But most teenagers -- 59 percent of them --

  • signed the confession statement,

  • falsely taking responsibility for the cheating.

  • Only three teens out of 74,

  • or about four percent of them,

  • asked to talk to a parent when we accused them of cheating,

  • despite the fact that for most of them,

  • their parent was literally sitting in the next room during the study.

  • Of course, cheating is far from murder,

  • and I know that.

  • But it's interesting that so many teens, significantly more teens than adults,

  • signed the confession saying that they cheated.