Police Interrogations and False Confessions of Juveniles

Sunday, January 24, 2016 by Kristin Russell

We've been losing sleep over the defense and trial of Brendan Dassey on Netflix's "Making a Murderer" docu-series. The series documents two murder trials and includes what many believe to be a false and coerced confession to the murder by a 16-year-old minor, Brendan Dassey. Detectives interrogated Brendan, who had an IQ of 70, without his parents or his attorney present.

Confessions obtained from minors are unreliable. Children are easily manipulated and do not fully understand their situation. This is especially true if the minor has a mental disability or cognitive limitation because they will almost always agree with authority figures.

Let's review the Kentucky law on juvenile confessions. The Kentucky Rules of Criminal Procedure say a defendant's confession alone, unless made in open court, will not warrant a conviction unless accompanied by other proof. Kentucky case law says the confession must be sufficiently corroborated and the prosecution must establish that it was voluntary before it may be introduced as evidence at trial. Here are some answers to common questions parents have:

Do police have to read Miranda rights to my child at school?

Kentucky case law says a juvenile is entitled to Miranda warnings before the child is questioned by a school official in the presence of a law enforcement officer when the juvenile is subject to criminal charges or adult felony charges, unless officers stated the juvenile did not have to speak to them, that he was free to return to class, and that officers would leave if he wanted them to.

How long can my child be held in custody for questioning?

A child may be held in custody for investigative and examination purposes for a maximum of 2 hours unless an extension is granted by the court, trial commissioner, or CDW (court designated worker). KRS 610.220. Your child is not required to speak to the police.

Do police have to call me when they question my child?

Yes. When police take a child into custody, they must advise the child of his basic constitutional rights and then notify the child's parent. KRS 610.200.

When is a juvenile confession not voluntary?

The Kentucky Supreme Court has found the three criteria to determine the voluntariness of a confession allegedly obtained by coercion are: 1) whether the police activity was objectively coercive; 2) whether the coercion overbore the will of the defendant; and 3) whether the defendant showed that the coercive police activity was the crucial motivating factor behind the defendant's confession.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals has excluded at least one juvenile's confession as not voluntary in circumstances similar to those in Brendan Dassey's case. In Commonwealth v. Bell (2012), the Court excluded a confession even where the juvenile was first read his Miranda rights. School officials placed the juvenile in a room where he faced authority figures who feigned superior knowledge. The interrogating detective stated that he could not leave until he found out something, and repeatedly demanded answers that the juvenile would feel compelled to provide if he was to be an obedient child.

Your child does not have to speak with the police and should not make any statements without an attorney present. Unfortunately, more often than not juveniles will speak with the police - many times without their parents. A good defense attorney will fight to exclude any incriminating statements or work to minimize their impact if they cannot be excluded.

The cases of Brendan Dassey and Steven Avery are not isolated events, but have help raised awareness of the flaws with our criminal justice system. Astonishingly, false confessions are fairly common. More than 1 out of 4 people exonerated by DNA evidence had made a false confession or incriminating statement prior to being convicted.

Be sure you speak to your child about what to do if he or she is approached by authorities at school or outside of your presence.