There are several theories and strategies when it comes to the practice of investigative interview and interrogation techniques. In the past several decades, this industry has undergone several changes and will continue to adapt based on legality and research. It is imperative, however, that all interview or interrogation techniques are conducted with integrity and with the intent to determine the truth and the substantiation of such. Commonly known methods being applied across several industries and some countries include the Reid technique, the PEACE model, and the WZ method of non-confrontational interviewing.
Netflix’s Making a Murderer documentary directly cites Reid when Brendan Dassey’s defense team discusses its claims against his interrogation. It is important to understand that different approaches or techniques of questioning may be more relevant and successful in some interviews versus others. It is even more vital to observe the facts of this case: a young subject who is known to have limited cognitive ability and the approach used when law enforcement representatives talked with him.
Brendan Dassey, sixteen years old at the time of his arrest, is a quiet and withdrawn person with limited social and communication skills. Dassey is known to have limited intellectual ability relative to his age and is therefore easily persuaded or influenced by authority. The series of interviews conducted with Dassey highlight a misuse of interview and interrogation techniques filled with persuasion, suggestion of leniency, and threats of punishment applied to a vulnerable, introverted subject. Dassey even stated to his mother after his confession, “They got in my head.”
Academics have argued that a direct, confrontational approach increases the likelihood of a false confession, especially with a subject that may be susceptible and vulnerable to such an accusatory conversation. In listening to excerpts from this four-hour interrogation, it is observed that the law enforcement agents told Dassey that he was involved in criminal acts and re-accused him several times with limited or potentially zero evidence to support that claim.
It is an unfair critique of the interrogation with hindsight as a valuable resource; however, in retrospect, several other interview and interrogation techniques may have been better suited with a subject such as Dassey. Alternative methods may have provided Dassey with the ability to provide an honest and truthful response with substantiation of any said facts, without the use of intimidation or promises of leniency.
Most important is the interrogation that ultimately led to Dassey’s confession and subsequent trial. In this interrogation, it is observed that Dassey is a quiet, withdrawn, and vulnerable subject. When Dassey is asked several questions, his answers almost sound like he is guessing as to the correct response to satisfy the interviewer. Dassey admits during this interview that he was involved in the rape and murder of Teresa Halbach and depicts a gruesome scene of the incident. Later in the documentary Dassey is asked by his mother how he came up with such a story, and Dassey replied, “I guessed.” Dassey’s mother then challenged him on that response, stating, “You don’t guess with something like this, Brendan,” to which Dassey replied, “Well, that’s what I do with my homework too.”
The major issue with this interrogation is the release of information by the investigators that ultimately contaminates Dassey’s confession. Most investigations will contain a piece of evidence or information that is kept from the general public, with the intention that it prevents false confessions and will substantiate a true admission of guilt from the responsible party. Unfortunately, false confessions happen for a variety of reasons, and sometimes it is simply because a subject wants notoriety for the horrific crime, causing them to take credit.
By not releasing specific facts or a piece of evidence to the public, it is assumed that only the actual guilty party will be able to provide it. This vital information in the Halbach case was the fact that she was shot in the head prior to having her body burned in a fire. If Dassey or Avery had stated (without being prompted) that Halbach was shot in the head, it would be a solid substantiation of such admission that they could speak to the intentionally omitted details of the criminal investigation. However, the investigators that spoke with Dassey revealed this information and therefore reduced all of its potential value.
The investigators led Dassey down a path, like a game of Taboo, where they gave him all of the clues and hoped he would pick the right answer. “What happened to her head, Brendan?” Dassey replies that Avery cut her hair and that Avery punched her. The viewer can sense the investigator becoming anxious, finally saying, “I’m just going to come out and ask you. Who shot her in the head?” The valuable piece of evidence that was intended to prevent false confessions had just been given to the most vulnerable subject in the entire criminal investigation.
As noted throughout the documentary, there are four different occasions when Dassey is interviewed without an attorney or a guardian present. Depending on the custodial nature of each conversation, there may not be any legal obligation to provide Dassey with this assistance. However, it may have prevented any misrepresentation of what occurred in those interviews.
Most ironic is the interrogation that occurs with Michael O’Kelly, the investigator hired by Dassey’s court-appointed attorney, Len Kachinsky. During this interrogation, O’Kelly is clearly pursuing an admission of guilt from Dassey as he threatens him with “spending the rest of your life in prison.” O’Kelly continues to persuade Dassey by asking if he wants a chance to get out one day and have a family. Ultimately, after many challenges and changes to his story, Dassey confesses to the crime.
An investigator and attorney who are supposed to uncover the truth on behalf of Dassey instead appear to have a goal of implicating him. Since the documentary has aired, Kachinsky has spoken to the media claiming, “In 20/20 retrospect, I should have never hired or fired O’Kelly.” Kachinsky also speaks about the potential of a plea deal that may have been reached with the prosecution had Dassey wanted to testify against Avery.
Even with all the aforementioned errors in the Dassey interrogations, it is still possible that he was involved in the rape and murder of Halbach. Any misapplications of methods used when interviewing Dassey do not necessarily prove his innocence. However, it does cast doubt on the validity of his confession in its entirety.
Investigators, whether they work for the prosecution or the defense, should always have the same intent: to extract and reveal the truth without prejudice. When planning an interview or interrogation, it is essential to understand the moral and ethical obligations one has for justice and for the subjects involved.
To read the full article, check out “Netflix’s Making a Murderer: The Omission of Critical Facts Creates Bias,” which was originally published in 2016. This excerpt was updated April 4, 2017.