Do police officers in the United States really intimidate and bully innocent suspects into making false confessions to horrendous violent crimes? Do law officers plant evidence to frame suspects for those crimes? Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is yes, although no one knows for sure how widespread these unethical practices really are. However, according to the allegations in one wildly popular true crime documentary, bullying a suspect and planting evidence have happened in at least one Wisconsin case, and now almost everyone knows about that case.
Making a Murderer, the ten-part crime documentary released in December by Netflix, has been seen by millions, and every day, more people are watching the series. Making a Murderer chronicles the disturbing case of Steven Avery of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. Avery was convicted in 1985 and then served eighteen years for a rape that he did not commit. DNA evidence conclusively identified another suspect, and Avery was released from state custody in 2003. Steven Avery then filed a $36 million civil lawsuit against Manitowoc County and the law enforcement officials responsible for the eighteen-year miscarriage of justice. While the lawsuit was pending in 2005, Steven Avery was arrested again – for a young woman’s murder – and he was found guilty of that murder in 2007. Avery was subsequently sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole, but as the documentary reveals, there were serious problems with the case and the trial.
Avery’s nephew and his alleged murder accomplice, Brendan Dassey, was 16 years old when he was interrogated about Teresa Halbach’s murder. The video of his interrogation tells us that Brendan Dassey was clearly bullied into making a questionable confession. Dassey was convicted on the basis of that confession. Key physical evidence against Avery was discovered, under questionable circumstances, days and weeks after the first investigators thoroughly searched the crime scene sites, and the filmmakers strongly suggest that the evidence was planted to ensure Avery’s conviction and to ensure that his $36 million lawsuit would be tossed out of court.
A DOUBTFUL CONFESSION
The only certainty about the Steven Avery murder case is that a doubtful confession was coerced from Brendan Dassey. Dassey has an IQ of 70, and he was grilled for hours without a parent or a lawyer at his side. It’s abundantly clear to viewers that Dassey’s police interrogators ask leading questions, feed him information, and that the frightened teen finally says exactly what the law officers want to hear. Brendan Dassey told Manitowoc County detectives that he joined Steven Avery in raping and brutalizing Ms. Halbach at Avery’s urging, and then – he said – he helped Avery kill the woman and dispose of her corpse. Dassey later walked back his confession, but a jury still convicted him of the murder, and he received a life sentence. Making a Murderer shows viewers that, on the basis of the forensic evidence, Dassey’s strange confession simply could not have been legitimate. In fact, viewers of the documentary have been shocked and outraged by the police tactics, and thousands across the country have signed petitions demanding a retrial for Brendan Dassey.
False confessions are actually far more common than most people think they are. In fact, about one in five prison inmates who have been exonerated by DNA evidence initially offered a false confession to their police interrogators. A Mississippi man, Phillip Bivens, served over thirty years behind bars after admitting to a murder that he did not commit. He was exonerated in 2010. The Bivens case was one of the sources for John Grisham’s bestselling novel The Confession, which deals at length with the problem of false confessions in the criminal justice system.
A STUNNING CASE
Perhaps the most stunning case of false confessions came out of the small community of Butler, Alabama, in 2001, when three suspects confessed to murdering a person who never even existed. Dianne Bell Tucker, Medell Banks, Jr., and Victoria Bell Banks were all three sent to an Alabama state prison for fifteen years for the “murder” of Victoria Bell Banks’ “newborn child.” Ms. Banks had feigned a pregnancy to get released on bond from the Choctaw County jail. Months later, when local police officers again encountered Ms. Banks, they asked about her new baby. When she told the officers that she had miscarried the child, they didn’t believe her. They launched a murder investigation but failed initially to order a medical exam for Ms. Banks. Three false confessions and three wrongful convictions resulted, but medical evidence eventually exonerated the trio.
At Northwestern Law School in Chicago, Steven Drizin directs the Center for Wrongful Convictions. He says it is rare for a person simply to stroll into a police station and falsely confess to committing a crime. Instead, says Drizin, the overwhelming majority of bogus confessions are coerced by the police during interrogations. Richard A. Leo, the author of Police Interrogation and American Justice (Harvard University Press, 2008), says that if you are arrested and interrogated, you should know that interrogations can run for hours, and the police aren’t limited to just one interrogation session.
Never let police officers question you without having your lawyer present for the entire interrogation session. You have the absolute constitutional right to remain silent, and you also have the absolute right to have your attorney present for any police interrogation or questioning. Be respectful to the police, and don’t express any “attitude,” but insist on your constitutional rights. The law permits police interrogators to lie to and to deceive suspects, and confessions are persuasive evidence. If you have falsely confessed to a crime or if you’ve been coerced by police interrogators, you’re going to need legal help. Speak to a good criminal defense attorney immediately, and in southern California, contact an experienced Long Beach criminal defense lawyer at once.
WHEN COPS PLANT EVIDENCE
The Brendan Dassey confession is only part of the Making a Murderer story. The documentary also strongly suggests that Manitowoc County law officers may have planted false evidence at the crime scenes on Steven Avery’s property – with the aim of making it easier to convict Avery for Teresa Halbach’s murder. The filmmakers focus on Lt. James Lenk, a Manitowoc County Sheriff’s detective, and Sheriff’s Sgt. Andrew Colborn, who supposedly found key physical evidence tying Avery to the murder. A key to Halbach’s RAV4 and a bullet fragment were found weeks after other investigators had combed through the crime sites. These items were entered as evidence, along with Brendan Dassey’s confession, at Steven Avery’s murder trial. Avery was found guilty, and he was sentenced to life without parole. In 2011, a Wisconsin state court denied Avery’s bid for a retrial, and Wisconsin’s Supreme Court also rejected an appeal. New attorneys filed a fresh appeal for Avery in January, 2016.
The larger concern is whether evidence-planting by police officers is rare or common, isolated or widespread. No one can be certain how frequently or how many law officers plant evidence. One former cop, professor Philip Stinson at Bowling Green State University, has gathered an impressive collection of data regarding police misconduct and evidence-planting in particular. Stinson says, “It’s a hidden crime. There’s not much we know about it.”
We’ve all seen the crooks in the movies shouting “I was framed,” so if you’ve been charged with a crime and you think the police planted evidence, it can be a tricky situation. A good criminal defense attorney may be able to investigate a police officer’s record and determine if the officer has been sued by citizens or disciplined by superiors for misconduct. In New York City, entirely innocent people have had drugs planted on them by police officers trying to make arrest quotas, so the frightening truth is that it can happen to anyone.
However, evidence-planting is considered a serious crime in every state, and if a police officer plants evidence in California, it’s a felony punishable by up to five years in prison under California Penal Code 141(b), which reads: “Any peace officer who knowingly, willfully, and intentionally alters, modifies, plants, places, manufactures, conceals, or moves any physical matter, with specific intent that the action will result in a person being charged with a crime or with the specific intent that the physical matter will be wrongfully produced as genuine or true upon any trial, proceeding, or inquiry whatever, is guilty of a felony punishable by two, three, or five years in the state prison.”
DON’T BE INTIMIDATED
If you believe that the police have planted evidence to frame you, or even if you were bullied or coerced into making a false confession, your circumstances may be dire, but the justice system also offers actual hope for actual justice. However, in any case involving police misconduct, you must have a legal advocate who is an experienced and seasoned criminal defense attorney – someone who will fight aggressively for the justice you deserve. If you are arrested and charged with a felony or a misdemeanor in southern California, discuss your legal rights and your defense as quickly as possible with an experienced Long Beach criminal defense lawyer. If you’re in legal trouble, don’t be intimidated, and don’t wait to make the call.