Approximately 29 percent of DNA exonerations across the United States since 1989 involved false confessions to the crime. The actual rate of false confessions will probably never be known for sure since ground truth is elusive in non-experimental settings. One thing is clear—false confessions are real.
Confrontation Equals Conflict
A combination of factors must be considered when deciding what could contribute to an innocent person confessing to a crime he did not commit. When evaluating a confession, we can look to the common attributes academics have chronicled among false-confession cases. What they have found is the suspect is often young, inexperienced, and mentally or intellectually challenged. These suspects were interviewed without an attorney or parent present, and the interrogation was more than three hours in length. In many cases, the interrogators leaked details about the crime to the suspect or used leading questions to bring the individual to the correct answers. Finally, the officers were often trained in the Reid Technique of Interviewing and Interrogation.
The Reid Technique includes the Reid Nine Steps of Interrogation process. The nine-step interrogation is a confrontational approach in which the interrogator starts the process with a direct statement of involvement—“Our investigation clearly indicated you took the missing deposit out of the safe here at the store.” This almost always results in the suspect denying involvement and protecting his assertions of innocence with additional denials.
Any rapport that was built during the opening interview with the subject is lost after the interrogator directly accuses the individual, listens to his denial of involvement, and then reaccuses him directly again. The situation becomes emotional as the suspect protests his innocence and the interrogator tries to stop his further denials. This can become frustrating for both the interrogator and the suspect as they struggle to control the encounter and emotions built.
We have all experienced conversations where emotions got out of control and unfortunate things were said. The interrogator’s choice of starting the interrogation with a direct accusation changes him into an opponent against whom the suspect can direct arguments and aggression, which can inflame a difficult situation further. The emotional nature of the encounter can lead to unfortunate words being spoken by the parties and possibly lead to mistakes in the interrogation and interpretation of the suspect’s behavior.
The second step has the interrogator offering a theme, essentially telling the suspect why he committed the act. “You are having financial problems, which caused you to take the deposit.” Even if this were true, the suspect denies the financial problems, interrupting the interrogator’s attempt to allow him to save face, making the approach even less effective. If the suspect is going to confess using the nine steps, it will be an emotional decision to do so. The emotional nature of the decision is reflected in the tearing, crying, and dejected body position taken by the suspect at the point of the first admission.
What appeals to some interrogators is the directness of the nine-step approach since they think being heavy-handed and confrontative is the key to dealing with suspects. Clearly, this belief stands in the face of academic research into interview and interrogation to the contrary and our practical experience in tens of thousands of non-confrontational conversations over the last 35 years.
Changes at WZ
As many of you know, Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates (WZ) is a world-leading investigative, consulting, and interview training firm that has been focused on non-confrontational interview and interrogation techniques since our inception in 1982. WZ conducts the non-confrontational interview and interrogation training for private and public sector agencies and organizations around the globe. The goal of any interview training session provided by WZ is focused on the search for the truth and reliable information through a collaborative conversation with the suspect.
WZ has embraced the changes in interpersonal dynamics, legalities, and academic research into interview and interrogation by offering new ideas and tactics for a changing world. Because of the possible abuses inherent in the confrontational Reid style, we believe it is time to move away from the practices of the 1970s when it was developed. Although the Reid nine-step interrogation approach has been successful in solving cases, there are serious potential pitfalls and inherent risks to its use if applied incorrectly.
WZ has been licensed to teach the Reid technique since 1984, but has not advocated its use in the private sector. The emotional nature of the interrogation makes it much less appropriate in a workplace environment for a variety of reasons, but none more important than employee relations. The change in personal dynamics from the 1970s, when managing and parenting was autocratic compared to today’s collaborative strategies, means new techniques are needed for a very different society and way of treating people.
As of February 2017, WZ no longer offers the Reid technique in our course selections. The Reid Nine Steps of Interrogation will only be discussed to highlight the potential risks it poses in obtaining a false or coerced confession or to illustrate the major advantages of using the WZ non-confrontational approach to interview and interrogation.
The Netflix series Making a Murderer highlighted the case of a young man named Brendan Dassey, who was interrogated after his uncle was implicated in the rape and murder of a young woman in Wisconsin. Dassey was young, inexperienced, socially inept, and intellectually challenged. He was interrogated at length by investigators who have fallen under much scrutiny for the manner in which they conducted the conversations. Investigators were observed leaking information to Dassey—they almost fed him the answers to provide, which makes corroboration very difficult, if not impossible. These investigators also used several leading questions as well as suggesting leniency and making false promises to Dassey, such as “honesty will set you free.”
Due to the questionable investigation and coercive interrogation, it is near impossible to determine if Dassey actually had any involvement in the crime or not; however, what can be said is that his confession was tainted by the investigators’ tactics, implied promises, and information leaks making it, in our opinion, involuntary and unusable. With the commonalities of false confessions we listed earlier in this piece, one would have to look at Dassey’s statements as highly questionable.
Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, the Juvenile Law Center, and University of Virginia Professor of Law Brandon L. Garrett filed an amicus brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on Dassey’s behalf in December 2016. The WZ team is proud to have stood behind the integrity of ethical, moral, and legally acceptable interview and interrogation methods.
The amicus brief was provided to the Seventh Circuit in response to the State of Wisconsin’s appeal of an August 12, 2016, decision by a federal magistrate judge. The decision supported the claims by Dassey that his confession was involuntary for a variety of reasons as noted within the amicus brief.
The brief highlights critical risks that interrogators have made when dealing with a subject such as Dassey—making false promises or suggestions of leniency, threats of consequences, and lack of considerations of his age, intellectual capacity, and social behaviors when dealing with authority.
On February 14, 2017, Laura Nirider of the Center for Wrongful Convictions of Youth presented her oral argument to federal judges on behalf of Dassey. Arguments from both parties, supporting documentation, case law, and the amicus brief will be reviewed by the federal court in hopes for proper justice in this case. This brief can be viewed on the WZ website at w-z.com.
Wrongful convictions, exonerations, and false confessions have become a global point of discussion and justifiably so. Although the Reid technique can be a useful tool in obtaining a confession, cases have shown that the improper application of the approach combined with the intense emotional pressure caused by its use can lead to horrendous results.
WZ will remain a progressive, evolving organization as we continue to partner with academics, attorneys, and researchers around the world to ensure the interview and interrogation tools we are providing are ethically, morally, and legally acceptable.
The goal of WZ will continue to be the search for truth and reliable information in an ethical fashion. The certified forensic interviewers (CFI) who serve as WZ instructors strongly support the research and dedication to the prevention of false confessions and miscarriages of justice.