Unmaking a murderer: how interrogations can lead to false confessions

June 12, 2018

Police interrogation

Police interrogation: The Reid technique is a method of questioning suspects to assess their credibility

A Murdoch University criminologist has developed a new way of mapping police interrogations, which illustrate how they can result in false confessions from suspects.

Dr David Keatley from the School of Law, applied his Behaviour Sequence Analysis (BSA) technique to transcripts of the interrogation of Brendan Dassey, whose convictions were examined in the Netflix documentary series Making A Murderer.

Dassey was sentenced to life in prison in 2007 after being convicted of the first degree murder of photographer Teresa Halbach, mutilation of a corpse and second degree sexual assault.

Initially denying involvement, Dassey was interrogated using the widely-used Reid technique by detectives, resulting in his oral and written confessions to the crime. He recanted these at trial but was still convicted and remains in prison despite various appeals and investigations.

The Reid Technique is a method of questioning suspects to assess their credibility. Supporters argue it is useful in extracting information from unwilling suspects while critics say it can elicit false confessions from innocent people, especially children.

The results from Dr Keatley’s study showed several psychological techniques, such as leading statements, pressure, empathy, proclaiming to know the truth and inducements, were used by detectives in increasing frequency, in the lead up to Dassey’s confession.

The results also showed the process of interrogation altered the story being told by Dassey.

Dr Keatley said the results showed the risks of employing the Reid Technique in a certain way with certain suspects.

“This is the first time BSA has been used for a police interrogation and we hope, with more research and testing, it could eventually lead to a better understanding of the key pathways that are likely to lead to false confessions,” he said.

“Despite the recent rise in media portrayals of false confessions, many people are still unable to understand why an innocent individual would confess to a crime they did not commit.

“Understanding the processes of why and how individuals may give false confessions is a central concern in legal systems around the world, especially in America, and we hope the application of BSA in real time to interrogations can help.”

Using the technique, long interrogations can be reduced to easy to follow diagrams that can help jury members understand how easy it is for police to stack psychological techniques and lead suspects to making false confessions, Dr Keatley said.

“While this area of research is very new, it holds great potential to future understanding of a complex and extremely important issue: how do we tell if someone has made a false confession, and how do we simplify this complex process into an easy outcome that a jury can understand and accept.”

A paper on Dr Keatley’s study has been published in the journal Psychiatry, Psychology and Law.

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