Reasonable Doubt: Making a Murderer and wrongful confessions in Canada

Making a Murderer is a Netflix sensation. Part of the true-crime series follows the trial of Brendan Dassey, a 16-year-old boy who was charged with participating in the murder of a local photographer.

Dassey confessed to the murder after police interrogated him for four hours. His confession formed the key part of the prosecution’s case.

Confessions are one of the most persuasive types of evidence at trial. In our adversarial legal system, admitting something against your interest is generally considered reliable. Not surprisingly, most confessions lead to convictions.

Making a Murderer argues that police pushed Dassey to falsely confess, despite his innocence.

Dassey’s confession had some of the markings of a classic false confession. False confessions are most common with vulnerable people with low IQs who are more susceptible to manipulative interrogation techniques.

Dassey was vulnerable at the time of his confession. He was 16 years old. He had an IQ close to the line for intellectual disability. His family was poor and largely uneducated and widely disliked in his community. Particularly troubling, the police interrogated Dassey without a lawyer or parent present.

Later, he recanted his confession, saying that he lied because he wanted to go home. He told his mother the police had “got in his head.”

The police who interrogated Dassey used the Reid Technique, a controversial interrogation method. The Reid Technique is an intense, accusatory and manipulative form of interrogation that is commonly used in Canada and the U.S.  

When using the Reid Technique, a police officer who suspects guilt hunts for a confession at every step, first by direct (perhaps aggressive) confrontation of all denials and then by minimizing the suspect’s moral culpability by downplaying blame or having them confess to more socially acceptable versions of the crime.

The Reid Technique is effective in securing confessions, but has also been criticized for pushing suspects to falsely confess, especially younger people with lower IQs. Judge Mike Dinkel had strong criticism of the Reid Technique in a recent case from Alberta:

“When stripped to its essentials the Reid Technique is solely designed to convince the suspect that he is caught, that the police have overwhelming evidence that he is the culprit, and that there is no way that the suspect will be able to convince the interrogator or anyone else involved in the Criminal Justice System that he didn’t do the crime. 

“…Although there is no law prohibiting the use of the Reid Technique, I find that it has the ability to extinguish the individual’s sacred legal rights to be presumed innocent until proven guilty and to remain silent in the face of police questioning.

“…I denounce the use of this technique in the strongest terms possible and find that its use can lead to overwhelmingly oppressive situations that can render false confessions and cause innocent people to be wrongfully imprisoned.”

Do wrongful confessions happen in Canada? Absolutely.

Joel Labadie and two other young men each confessed to raping and killing a young girl after being interrogated by police for 15 hours. All three of them were innocent. Labadie had trouble explaining why he confessed:

“All I know is for hours on end I said ‘No, I had nothing to do with it.’ Next thing you know I’m sitting here going ‘Sure, why not. I did it.’ More or less it’s like they kill your spirit or something,” he said.

Canada also allows “Mr. Big” stings. Mr. Big stings are not allowed in the U.S. or Britain due to concerns of false confessions.

A Mr. Big sting involves undercover police officers pretending to be a part of a crime organization and then having a pretend crime boss (“Mr. Big”) persuade the suspect to confess to the crime in question. Mr. Big stings are the kind of elaborate investigations you might think only exist in the movies.

Consider the case of Alan Smith. Smith was charged with murdering his neighbour, but the charges were dropped for a lack of evidence. He was bankrupt, battled addiction and mental health problems and was socially isolated.

Undercover police slowly built a friendship with Smith, pretended to be involved in illegal organizations and then gradually involved him in fake crimes. Eventually, they led Smith to a fake murder scene with a crime boss standing over a fake body covered in sheep’s blood. The undercover police convinced Smith that he had witnessed the scene of a murder at the hands of the crime boss. The crime boss then demanded that Smith provide incriminating evidence to act as insurance for his loyalty. Smith “confessed” to murdering his neighbour.

Smith recanted his confession, explaining that he lied because he feared for his life. The judge found his confession unreliable and so riddled with inconsistencies that it had holes big enough to “drive a Mack truck through.”

Canadians often criticize the U.S.’s legal system. But similar narratives play out in our courts every day, and sometimes they are no less troubling, dramatic or damaging.

Joseph Fearon is a personal injury lawyer with Preszler Law Firm LLP. Reasonable Doubt appears on on Mondays. Follow @JWCFearon on Twitter. | @nowtoronto

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