Brendan Dassey, Max Soffar, and the False Confession Playbook

Innocent Man on Death Row Wants To Die At Home

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Many viewers of Netflix’s hit documentary series “Making a Murderer” report being sickened by the police’s treatment of 16-year-old Brendan Dassey, the ways in which the investigators manipulated Brendan’s emotions, memories, and imagination until he produced the fiction they wanted. I too felt ill — police in Texas put my client Max Soffar on death row using the same methods to draw out a false confession.

Now Max — innocent of the three murders for which he was sentenced — is dying behind bars from cancer in its final stage. With every visit, I’ve seen Max become horrifically gaunt, his eyes seeming to grow bigger and bigger.

Watching Brendan’s sessions with police gave me a window into Max’s interrogations, which have no video record. The police audio-recorded only two of 26 hours of interrogation, and the officers, not Max, typed up his statements. Despite the 27 years between them, Max and Brendan’s interrogations came from the same playbook.

Suspects who are young, have mental illnesses, have low intelligence, or are otherwise vulnerable are the most susceptible to making false confessions.

  • Brendan was a 16-year-old special education student with an IQ near 70, placing him in roughly the lowest 5 percent of the population for intelligence. The police interrogated him without a parent present.
  • Max was a brain-damaged 24-year-old who was well known by the police as having a brain “fried” from drug use and the mental capacity of a 10- or 11-year-old.

Deceptive kindness works in eliciting a false confession.

  • When Brendan wasn’t coming up with the desired information, the police just kept gently coaxing him, pushing softly but relentlessly for the answers they wanted. Sometimes the officers acted like coaches consoling an injured athlete needing to sit out, reaching over to pat his knee and say encouragingly, “Come on, buddy. We’re in your corner.”
  • When Max stopped answering questions and started asking for a lawyer during his interrogation, the officers left and sent in Sergeant Bruce Clawson from a nearby jurisdiction. Sgt. Clawson was Max’s “friend” who knew him as a wannabe informant and attention seeker.

Multiple interrogations over multiple hours lead to multiple inconsistencies proving the process unreliable

  • The police conducted four formal interrogations of Brendan over hours, days, and weeks (and that doesn’t account for questioning likely done off camera). Under that pressure, he kept changing his story, as to whether he was involved in a plan to kill Teresa Halbach, what Steven said when he invited Brendan over, when they killed her, and on and on. The result was a mashup of inconsistent statements with facts that didn’t match.
  • In Max’s case, the police took three different written statements from him over 26 hours on three different days, plus interviewed him at other times without any recording. Like Brendan’s statements, Max’s “confessions” clashed frequently with each other and with the known, credible evidence. In the first two statements, Max said he remained in the car while a “running buddy” went inside the bowling alley, while Max’s third statement said that both men went in and shot the victims. The surviving victim meanwhile contradicted Max’s third statement as to the number of perpetrators (one), what the perpetrator said, and so on. The only correct details to be found in Max’s statements had been widely published in the media.

These techniques produced false confessions that stood alone in each case as the only “evidence” the prosecution had. For both Max and Brendan, law enforcement had otherwise come up empty: no DNA, no eyewitnesses, no fingerprints, and no other physical or forensic evidence linked either of them to murder.

I know the nightmare will be over soon for Max one way or another. If it were just Max, I just might be able to wipe my tears and try to forget this horrific chapter in criminal justice. But the mentally challenged Brendan in belly chains on my TV screen and in his prison photo on my computer remind me that the innocent are still preyed upon. Indeed, of the 58 people who were exonerated in 2015 of murder, the National Registry of Exonerations found that 22 had been convicted based on false confessions.

Brendan faces 30 more years before he will be eligible for parole. Thankfully Wisconsin stands with the majority of states that no longer allow or carry out executions. But we must do more to prevent duplicitous interrogations and false confessions. In far too many parts of the country, police aren’t required to videotape their interrogations. Video didn’t save Brendan from prison, but that audio-visual evidence might yet get him out.

It’s not the videos alone, of course, that give Brendan’s case hope. Those tapes had to be scrutinized for hours on end in keeping with the research on false confessions. In addition to videos of all confessions, we must ensure that attorneys have the time and money to study them. Otherwise, the police, prosecutors, judges, and juries will continue to make a mockery of justice. We must stop punishing the innocent and vulnerable for crimes that aren’t their own. 

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Anonymous

Since the so-called "War on Drugs" began in the 1970's, the U.S. Supreme Court has grossly distorted the letter & spirit of the 4th Amendment, 5th Amendment, 6th Amendment, 7th Amendment and 8th Amendment instead of requiring a constitutional amendment - which is the high court's greatest duty.

Since lower courts are required by law to follow U.S. Supreme Court rulings (even faulty rulings) these types of genuine tyrannies will happen as a result.

It's up to today's U.S. Supreme Court to interpret the letter & spirit of the "supreme law of the land" -or- require a constitutional amendment (as the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court's dissenting view in "Terry v. Ohio" warned us about in perverting the 4th Amendment's letter and spirit). One faulty ruling can affect thousands of cases and destroy thousands of lives for decades to come, it's time the high court correct this mistake.

Anonymous

Unfortunately, most people have been conditioned to think that the police are unfallible heros. That somehow, anyone who wears that shield, is imune from wrong doing. Sadly, the opposite is quite often true. Politicians, media and Hollywood have warped our senses and perception of this "good vs evil" "cops and robbers" view. Rudy Guliani recently lashed out at Beyonce for "attacking" the police in her music. He actually said "......police officers, who are the people who protect her and protect us and keep us alive". Rhetoric like this is repeated everyday by people who believe or want us to believe that without police, we would all fall into anarchy and be killed. This leads to too much power and assumed righteousness given to the Police. The presumption of innocence until proven guilty is slowly washing away and being replaced with the presumption that the police wouldn't be bothering this person if they didn't do something wrong. People need to start exorcising rational, logical thought in their decision making. All people.

Anonymous

Interesting piece. I would like to add that there seems to be a misconception with respect to false confessions and interrogations. Most interrogations usually take numerous hours for law enforcement to secure a false confession, but I think what gets lost in the conversation is that how little it takes for law enforcement to secure false confessions. I think more focus needs to be on this area of false confessions, because I believe it happens more than the public this.

Anonymous

There have been so many of these awful stories of police behaving like the devil sent them, and I don't even believe in the devil. But it is confounding to the inth degree why human beings are so willing to act so horrible, all for what?
With all the cases of police misconduct, false confessions, and conviction reversals, why is Texas trying so hard to procure the drugs to continue imposing the death penalty?
What has to happen to make this stop? We have no business imposing the death penalty. Wouldn't it be better to let these people live, rather then risk the chance of killing an innocent person? Texas is really a pathetic state.

Anonymous

It must be an "international thing" . Though we do not have the death penalty in Australia at all the police MO does not differ ie . get a confession/admission at all costs. There is a famous convicted murderer Brett Cowan who was convicted mainly on admissions to undercover police who pretending to be members of a criminal gang promised him $100,000 or so in benefits and an on-going position in their organisation which they claimed had corrupt police associates who would destroy evidence. Our High Court had a split decision allowing such evidence in Tofilau where a highly respected Judge Kirby said in minority such evidence should not be admissible on basic common law principles.
In Queensland confessions have to be part of a record which in practice means electronically recorded though often when it is clear there has been prior conversation the record of the actual confession is allowed in - one can imagine the accused often alleges police impropriety in that earlier unrecorded chat. Thereby the purpose of mandatory recording of all conversations is defeated.

Anonymous

For Gods sake, why don’t you people do more than watch ten minutes of a confession in a so-called documentary. Brendan was talked to on 11/5 and changed his story several times. Ironically it sounded like he was coached to day by his uncle. The officers talking to him were from another county and not involved at all. Did they coerce him by simply asking questions causing him to lie? No. He screwed up what he was supposed to say and had to catch himself. He was questioned again on 2/27 and told LE he was a witness only. His IQ was not 70 either. That was Stevens. There are phone calls between Brendan and others besides the 5/13/2006 phone call with his mom. His mom opted out of the 3/1 confession- that’s in her testimony from his 2010 appeal. But that’s not important to you is it? It’s a much better story when the murderers are victims and the people that investigated the case and prosecuted it are the villains. Just once it’d be so refreshing to see media do some research. I won’t hold my breath.
FTR, Brendan was offered a plea for 15 years. Ironically his grandpa convinced him not to take it because it’d hurt “both you guys” meaning Steven too. His exact words in that phone call to Brendan were: “tell them they (cops) made you say it”.
Brendan would’ve been out by now or shortly after serving 2/3rds of his 15 yr sentence if he accepted the plea. They were still offering him a plea AFTER Avery was found guilty. When they didn’t even need his testimony. No one thought Brendan should go away for that many years but maybe if his family cared about his best interests, he wouldn’t be in this mess right now.
So for your story that supports an accomplice to a murder, you can shove it. For the sake of the victim and her family, do some damn research before assuming all you see in a mockumentary is 100% true.

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