Making a Murderer: Two takeaways for those falsely accused of crime

The popular Netflix documentary series provides two lessons about wrongful convictions.

The Netflix documentary series "Making a Murderer" has gained attention throughout the country. A recent article in The New Yorker discusses the piece, noting the public’s fascination with justice is not a new one. The piece discusses a column that ran in a magazine that addressed similar issues. The column was called "The Court of Last Resort," and it ran from 1948 to 1958. In this column, a former criminal defense attorney along with a private detective, handwriting analyst, former prison warden and a homicide specialist would work together reviewing cases looking for wrongful convictions. Their work resulted in a number of exonerations.

Although it is unclear what the impact of "Making a Murderer" will have on Stephen Avery and Brendan Dassey, this current case echoes lessons learned during the running of "The Court of Last Resort".

Two lessons from "Making a Murderer" for those facing a wrongful conviction

Those who are facing a wrongful conviction can take two lessons away from the documentary and magazine column. In some cases, a wrongful conviction may hinge on a false or involuntary confession. These confessions are not always accurate. Innocent people can confess to a crime they did not commit for a number of reasons. The Innocence Project, a national organization that is dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals, notes that a number of factors can contribute to a false confession during a police interrogation. These can include duress, coercion, diminished capacity, mental impairment, a misunderstanding of the law, fear of violence, the threat of a harsh sentence or intoxication.

In addition to these factors, additional personal attributes have been shown to increase the risk of a false or involuntary confession. These two attributes are:

  • Age. Younger people are more likely to give a false confession. This is supported by a number of studies, including a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and conducted by the Florida International University. This study found that 38 percent of exonerations for crimes alleged to be committed by an individual under the age of 18 involved false confessions. This is much higher than the average rate of 20 percent.
  • Intelligence. Brendan Dassey, the nephew accused of assisting Stephen Avery in Halbach’s murder, was defined in The New Yorker piece as a "stone-quiet, profoundly naïve, learning-disabled teenager". Those with a low IQ or who have developmental disabilities are more likely to falsely confess for a number of reasons, including a short attention span, poor memory and poor communication skills. These individuals, as noted in a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law Online, "do not always understand the statements made to them or the implications of their answers."

The Innocence Project estimates that more than 1 out of 4 people wrongfully convicted and later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement. As a result, it is important for those who believe they are being wrongly persecuted for a crime they did not commit to take the charges seriously. In these situations, it is wise to seek the counsel of an experienced wrongful conviction lawyer. This legal professional will help better ensure your legal rights are protected.