You’ve been arrested and had absolutely nothing to do with the crime in question. So why would you confess to committing it?
According to Laura Nirider, an attorney featured on Netflix' Making a Murderer who specializes in questionable convictions of young people, the answer "has everything to do with the psychology inside the interrogation room."
False confessions “happen way more than you think,” she says.
Starting Monday, Nirider and fellow attorney Steve Drizin are launching season 2 of their hit podcast, Wrongful Conviction: False Confessions, on Apple, Spotify, and everywhere podcasts are available.
The gut-wrenching episodes, says Nirider, “bring listeners right into the interrogation room.”
If anyone knows about police interrogations and false confessions, it’s Nirider and Drizin.
The two were central figures in Making a Murderer as attorneys for Brendan Dassey, who was convicted of first-degree murder in 2007 after Wisconsin prosecutors said he helped his uncle, Steven Avery, rape and murder young photographer Teresa Halbach when he was 16.
The two lawyers from Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions took Dassey on as a client in 2007, maintaining that his now-highly-publicized confession was coerced and false.
Dassey, who according to his lawyers has intellectual disabilities, was questioned four times over 48 hours without a parent or lawyer present, the docuseries shows. He later recanted his confession.
“Brendan’s case is the one that woke me up to the problem of false confessions,” she says.
Hosted by Nirider and Drizin, Wrongful Conviction goes in-depth on stories of true confessions, using real audio from actual interrogations.
Each episode starts with a real-life crime — with Nirider and Drizin showing the many techniques interrogators use to extract false confessions from innocent suspects.
“Police officers are trained to use a common set of psychological manipulative tactics that are designed to make the person being interrogated start to think that confessing is in his or her best interest, even if they're innocent,” says Nirider. “A police officer will say, ‘Look, we have rock-solid evidence that you're guilty.’"
In the United States, "police are allowed to lie about that," she says.
"So they can say, ‘We found your DNA at the scene,’ or, ‘we found your fingerprints on the gun,’ and it could be a complete lie, but they're allowed to do that. And of course, that's what scares people.”
One of the cases Nirider and Drizin explore this season is that of the so-called Norfolk Four — the four U.S. Navy sailors who falsely confessed to murdering another sailor’s wife in 1997 in Norfolk, Virginia. They were all convicted in 1999 and in 2000 and sentenced to prison.
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“This is one of the most iconic and disturbing cases of wrongful conviction I have ever seen,” Nirider says. “It's a case that shows how any of us can be made to falsely confess, even disciplined military men."
After years of appeals, the four men were finally exonerated in 2017. The city of Norfolk was ordered to pay the men a total settlement of $4.9 million and the state of Virginia was ordered to pay a total of $3.5 million for the wrongful convictions.
“These guys ended up serving between eight and 20 years in prison before the DNA that already had proven their innocence was matched to a known repeat rapist who preyed on women near the victim's building,” she says.
What should someone do if they’re arrested and had nothing to do with the crime?
“The most important thing anyone can do is to decline to be questioned and politely and respectfully say, 'I want a lawyer,’” she says.
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