Since coming home from celebrating Christmas with the family, I have spent my downtime watching Making a Murderer on Netflix. It’s a documentary series told in 10 parts about a man by the name of Steven Avery living in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. Avery is accused of murdering a young woman by the name of Teresa Halbach. That’s the short description. The long description involves multiple accounts of police corruption in the county’s sheriff’s department that led to Avery serving 18 years for a rape he didn’t commit, a $36 million lawsuit against the county for that false imprisonment, and a series of suspicious investigative and prosecutorial tactics by the criminal justice system in the state of Wisconsin that led to the very public trial and conviction of Avery for Ms. Halbach’s murder. The series is equal parts fascinating and frustrating. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it. If you’re a fan of the Serial podcast, this is very similar. The major difference is the filmmakers never make themselves part of the documentary. There is no narration or commentary from the folks making the series. They let the footage, taped phone calls and evidence do all the talking.
What I find particularly interesting is the interrogation tactics by the police. Specifically, when it came to Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey. At the time I believe he was 15 or 16, and they subjected him to a number of marathon one-on-two interviews with the lead investigators. Brendan’s IQ is in the low 70’s. He’s a shy kid who is terrified by authority figures. The investigators clearly guided his testimony and pushed him to confess to being an accessory to the murder of Teresa Halbach.
I have seen this interrogation technique firsthand. In the early 90’s, I was visiting my grandmother in Grand Junction, Colorado during the holiday season. My stay was involuntarily extended because the vehicle I drove at the time broke down, and the mechanic had to wait a week before the part he needed to fix it would come in. Other than my grandmother, I didn’t know a soul in Grand Junction, so I spent my days at the library writing like any aspiring writer would. With no vehicle, my mode of transportation was my feet. So I hoofed it back and forth from the library to my grandmother’s house every day. I was a stranger walking the streets of a small community in the cold weather. Think Rambo without the ripped physique or the survival skills.
The events happened thusly: (Circa 1992)
On one particular day, my grandmother leaves to go decorate the Christmas tree at the VA. Approximately 30 minutes after she leaves, I hear a knock at the door. When I answer it, I see a uniformed officer staring at me with his hand resting on his holstered weapon. Five other police officers stand in front of three county cruisers with their lights flashing.
The deputy at the door says, “You look like you’ve been testing driving a blue truck.”
Highly confused and somewhat intimidated I answer, “Excuse me?”
The deputy explains that a woman had listed her blue truck for sale in the auto trader, and a man matching my description came to her house to test drive it, and he simply never returned. I laugh because in my mind it’s a ridiculous notion that I would steal a truck, blue or otherwise. Something in my mind clicks at this point. I’m about to have a memorable life experience. I tell myself to take mental notes. Observe everything very carefully because you may be able to write about this someday. So from that moment on it became “research” to me. I’m not just being accused of stealing a blue truck. I’m being allowed to witness actual police procedure up close and personal. It doesn’t occur to me that I will ever be arrested for a crime I didn’t commit. To the deputies who came expecting a volatile suspect, I’m sure they think I’m exhibiting bizarre behavior. To them, it may appear that I’m actually appreciative of the opportunity, and in my writer’s mind, I am.
They take me to a police station and put me in a tiny interrogation room. It’s essentially a windowless supply closet. The good cop comes in first. He believes me. I’m clearly a nice guy. The woman who identified me as the suspect has obviously made a mistake. He wants names of people I’ve talked to. He wants to know where I’m coming from. I had just been visiting a friend in Montana. I explain that my vehicle is in the shop, and I’m expecting it to be repaired within the week.
Then the bad cop comes into the room. He’s about 6’4” tall, roughly 275 lbs., and I’m guessing about 5% body fat. He’s a slightly taller version of John Cena. He starts putting the pressure on me to confess. He wants to know why I did it. He starts feeding me little details about the crime itself and wants to know if it sounds familiar to me. He’s relentless and terrifying. He tells me that I have a few hours before my crime becomes a felony. If I confess now, it’s just a misdemeanor.
Keep in mind, I’m still looking at this as an adventure that will make a great story. I start joking around with the bad cop to try and get him off his game. “Trust me,” I say, “If I stole this woman’s truck, you’d be the first person I’d tell. You’re huge.”
He chuckles and both the deputies leave the room. The good cop comes back and asks me to accompany him to another part of the station. He escorts me through this maze of people. About 50 people form lines on either side of me as I traverse the building. He takes me to a fingerprinting station, and asks me if it’s okay if they get my fingerprints. I say no because that feels like I’m being arrested. He accepts my answer without an argument and walks me back to the interrogation room.
I’m subjected to more good cop/bad cop questioning. The woman saw me walk through the station, and she’s confirmed that I am the suspect who stole her truck. The problem is I talked to one person by phone that day, and that person confirmed my alibi. But, only one person to confirm my whereabouts is pretty flimsy. The deputies scold me for not talking to anyone at the library. I ask them if they’ve ever been in a library. It’s not a great place to meet people and strike up conversations with strangers.
I’m interrogated by these two for a total of three hours before they get their lieutenant involved. He takes me into the cafeteria where he tries to get me to relax. My alibi checks out, he says, but something about me doesn’t add up as far as he’s concerned. I just look too nervous. Like I’m lying. I respond, “You know it’s probably your line of work. You’ve been conditioned not to trust people.” He now thinks I’m a smartass, but that is my sincere opinion. He wants to know why I appear nervous. “Because,” I say, “I’m being accused of stealing a blue truck.” He barks back, “No one is accusing you of anything.” “Then why am I here?” I shout. It’s then he realizes that he doesn’t know what the word “accused” means, and he backtracks on his assertion that I haven’t been accused of anything.
He breaks the news to me that that they’ve recovered fingerprints from the scene. The suspect touched the woman’s screen door, and the best way to end this ordeal is for me to let them fingerprint me. I say with jubilation, “Yes! Let’s do it. Fingerprint me.”
He immediately looks disappointed. I realize instantly that he just lied to me. They don’t have fingerprints. He is bluffing, and I inadvertently called him on it. They carry on with the charade that they have fingerprints and escort me to the booking area. I place my fingers on a computer screen and my fingerprints are scanned, and then they demand that I stand for my mugshot. I protest, but they assure me that it’s standard procedure. I’m convinced they are lying to me and this is a ruse to place me under arrest without causing a scene. However, they take my mugshot and drive me back to my grandmother’s house.
For days following the interrogation, deputies drive by my grandmother’s house every hour on the hour. Fortunately, my Grandmother and parents have a lot of connections in the community, and a meeting is arranged with the second in command at the sheriff’s department, a man that goes to church with my grandmother. We arrive and he explains that the whole thing has been dismissed. They now believe the woman was lying about the truck being stolen for the insurance money.
Back to 2016:
Here’s the difference between my encounter with police interrogators and Brendan Dassey’s. I was in my mid 20’s. I had a college degree. I have a much higher IQ than Dassey, and I wasn’t terrified by authorities. They tried to feed me details and get me to claim them as my own, but I could see what they were doing. They were interested in a confession, not the truth. It was pretty obvious from the moment the bad cop entered the interrogation room that they were going to try to outlast my insistence that they had the wrong guy and just wear me down.
Brendan Dassey was an emotionally stunted, awkward teenager who didn’t even know the difference between yards and feet. He went through three of the types of interrogations I went through, and there was the added pressure of the case being about murder. I’m sure I wouldn’t have been so confidant and fascinated by the interrogation had I been facing being falsely accused of murder. They broke the poor kid down and shaped his confession.
I cannot recommend Making a Murderer enough. Watching it has convinced me that we need drastic changes to our criminal justice system. The presumption of innocence does not exist in this country for the most part. Prosecutors use the media to prejudice a community against a suspect, and judges (most often elected officials) behave in a way to appease the public. I’ve been subjected to the kind of interrogation tactics that Brendan Dassey went through, albeit on a much smaller scale, and I know investigators don’t want the truth. They want a confession. If you’re poor, uneducated, and learning impaired, you don’t have a chance.
After watching the series, my guess is you will come away with two questions: How can the system be this corrupt, and who really killed Teresa Halbach?