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What every person needs to know about risks of false confessions

If you are among the many fans of the Netflix documentary series "Making a Murderer," the following scenario will be familiar to you. A 16-year-old kid named Brendan Dassey was interrogated by law enforcement as a possible accomplice in an alleged rape and murder in 2005. The primary suspect was his uncle, Steven Avery, whose guilt was anything but clear.

Dassey's IQ has been measured at about 70 or lower (100 is considered average). After being interrogated, Dassey "confessed" to participating in the rape and murder. He then asked, since the interrogation was finished, if he could go back to school because he had a 1:30 class. Is that the kind of question someone would ask if they understood the gravity of the situation?

Unfortunately, Dassey was interrogated without a lawyer or a family member by his side. He was also subjected to a common but incredibly powerful interrogation method known as the Reid technique. And despite fairly clear evidence that he didn't understand what he was being accused of (and therefore didn't commit the crime), Dassey was convicted.

A similar case occurred in Minnesota in 2009. A Moorhead man in his 40s was interrogated at length about the rape and strangulation of a woman who lived next door (the crime had occurred 16 years earlier). Like Dassey, the man had a very low IQ. And, after "confessing," he asked if he could go on his family camping trip.

This second case had a different outcome - likely because a false confessions expert testified on his behalf. There was someone who could explain that a confession isn't always as cut-and-dried as most people think it is.

The Reid technique is not supposed to be used on minors, on suspects who are intoxicated or on suspects who are cognitively disabled (including those with a low IQ). In fact, investigators are not supposed to use it on any suspect unless they are sure the suspect is guilty.

These two cases provide an important reminder to anyone charged with or suspected of a crime: It is very dangerous to answer questions without a criminal defense lawyer by your side. Each of us has the right to refuse to answer questions until we consult with an attorney, yet too many people either don't understand this right or assume that they don't need to exercise it (because they are innocent).

If you ever find yourself in such a situation, please seek help from an experienced criminal defense attorney right away.

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