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TEDxFIU

Lindsay Malloy: Why teens confess to crimes they didn't commit

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Why do juveniles falsely confess to crimes? What makes them more vulnerable than adults to this shocking, counterintuitive phenomenon? Through the lens of Brendan Dassey's interrogation and confession (as featured in Netflix's "Making a Murderer" documentary), developmental psychology professor and researcher Lindsay Malloy breaks down the science underlying false confessions and calls for change in the way kids are treated by a legal system designed for adults.

- Developmental psychology professor, researcher
Lindsay Malloy studies how kids function in a legal system that was designed for adults. Full bio

Tyler Edmonds,
00:14
Bobby Johnson,
00:16
Davontae Sanford,
00:18
Marty Tankleff,
00:20
Jeffrey Deskovic,
00:22
Anthony Caravella
00:24
and Travis Hayes.
00:27
You probably don't recognize their faces.
00:29
Together, they served 89 years
for murders that they didn't commit;
00:32
murders that they falsely confessed
to committing when they were teenagers.
00:36
I'm a forensic developmental psychologist,
00:41
and I study these types of cases.
00:43
As a researcher,
00:46
a professor
00:48
and a new parent,
00:49
my goal is to conduct scientific research
that helps us understand
00:50
how kids function in a legal system
that was designed for adults.
00:55
In March of 2006,
00:59
police interrogated Brendan Dassey,
01:01
a 16-year-old high school student
with an IQ around 70,
01:03
putting him in the range
of intellectual disability.
01:07
So here's just a brief snippet
of his four-hour interrogation.
01:10
(Video) Police 1: Brendan, be honest.
01:15
I told you before that's the only thing
that's going to help you here.
01:16
We already know what happened, OK?
01:20
Police 2: If we don't get honesty here --
01:22
I'm your friend right now,
01:24
but I've got to believe in you,
01:27
and if I don't believe in you,
01:29
I can't go to bat for you.
01:31
OK? You're nodding.
01:33
Tell us what happened.
01:35
P1: Your mom said you'd be honest with us.
01:36
P2: And she's behind you 100 percent
no matter what happens here.
01:38
P1: That's what she said,
because she thinks you know more, too.
01:41
P2: We're in your corner.
01:44
P1: We already know what happened,
now tell us exactly. Don't lie.
01:46
Lindsay Malloy: They told Brendan
that honesty would "set him free,"
01:51
but they were completely
convinced of his guilt at that point.
01:55
So by honesty, they meant a confession,
01:58
and his confession would definitely not
end up setting him free.
02:00
They eventually got
a confession from Brendan
02:04
that didn't really make sense,
02:06
didn't match much of the physical
evidence of the crime
02:08
and is widely believed to be false.
02:10
Still, it was enough to convict Brendan
and sentence him to life in prison
02:13
for murder and sexual assault in 2007.
02:17
There was no physical evidence
against Brendan at all.
02:21
It was nothing more than his own words
02:23
that sent him to prison
for nearly a decade,
02:26
until a judge overturned his conviction
just a few months ago.
02:28
The Dassey case is unique because
it made its way into a Netflix series,
02:33
called "Making a Murderer,"
02:38
which I'm sure many of you saw,
02:39
and if you haven't,
you should definitely watch it.
02:41
The Dassey case is also unique
02:44
because it led to such
intense public outrage.
02:46
People were very angry about
how Brendan was questioned,
02:49
and many assumed that his interrogation
had to have been illegal.
02:52
It wasn't illegal.
02:57
As someone who's a researcher in this area
02:58
and is familiar with police
interrogation training manuals,
03:00
I wasn't really surprised by what I saw.
03:03
The fact is, Dassey's interrogation itself
is actually not all that unique,
03:06
and to be honest with you,
I've seen worse.
03:10
So I understand the public
outcry about injustice
03:13
in Brendan Dassey's individual case.
03:17
But let's not forget that approximately
one million or so of his peers
03:20
are arrested every year
in the United States
03:24
and may be subjected to similar
interrogation techniques,
03:26
techniques that we know increase
the risk for false confession.
03:30
And I know many people are going
to struggle with that term,
03:35
"false confession,"
03:38
and with believing that false
confessions actually occur.
03:39
And I get that.
03:43
It's very shocking and counterintuitive:
03:44
Why would someone confess
and even give gruesome details
03:47
about a horrifying crime
like rape or murder
03:52
if they hadn't actually done it?
03:56
It makes no sense.
03:58
And the fact is, we can never
know precisely
04:00
how often false confessions occur.
04:02
But what we do know is that false
confessions or admissions were present
04:04
in approximately 25 percent
of wrongful convictions
04:08
of people later exonerated
by DNA evidence.
04:12
Turns out, they were innocent.
04:15
These cases are crystal clear
because we have the DNA.
04:17
So they didn't do the crime,
04:20
and yet one-quarter of them
confessed to it anyway.
04:22
And at this point,
from countless research studies,
04:27
we have a pretty good sense
of why people falsely confess,
04:30
and why some people,
04:33
like Brendan Dassey,
04:34
are at greater risk for doing so.
04:36
We know that youth are especially
vulnerable to providing false confessions.
04:40
In one study of exonerations, for example,
04:45
only eight percent of adults
had falsely confessed,
04:48
but 42 percent of juveniles had done so.
04:50
Of course, if we're just looking
at wrongful convictions and exonerations,
04:53
we're only getting part of the story.
04:58
Left out, for instance, are the many cases
that are resolved by guilty pleas,
05:00
not trials.
05:05
From TV and news headlines,
05:06
you may think that trials are the norm
in our legal system,
05:08
but the reality is that 97 percent
of legal cases in the US
05:11
are resolved by pleas, not trials.
05:15
Ninety-seven percent.
05:18
Also left out will be confessions
to more minor types of crimes
05:20
that don't typically involve DNA evidence
05:24
and aren't usually reviewed
or appealed following a conviction.
05:26
So for this reason,
05:31
many refer to the false confessions
we actually do know about
05:32
as the tip of a much larger iceberg.
05:35
In our research, we found alarming rates
of false confession among teenagers.
05:39
We interviewed almost 200
incarcerated 14-to-17-year-olds,
05:43
and 17 percent of them reported
05:48
that they'd made at least
one false confession to police.
05:49
What's also shocking to most is that,
05:54
in interrogations in the US,
05:57
police are allowed to interrogate
juveniles just like adults.
05:59
So they can lie to them --
06:02
blatant lies like, "We have
your fingerprints,
06:04
we have your DNA;
06:08
your friend is down the hall
saying that this was all your idea."
06:09
Lying to suspects is banned
in the UK, for example,
06:14
but legal here in the US,
06:17
even with intellectually impaired teens
like Brendan Dassey.
06:19
In our research, most of the incarcerated
teens that we interviewed
06:24
reported experiencing
high-pressure police interrogations
06:27
without lawyers or parents present.
06:30
More than 80 percent described
having been threatened by the police,
06:33
including with the possibility
of being raped or killed in jail
06:36
or being tried as an adult.
06:40
These maximization strategies are designed
06:42
to make suspects feel
like denials are pointless
06:45
and confession is the only option.
06:48
So you may have heard of playing
the role of "good cop/bad cop," right?
06:51
Well, this is bad cop.
06:54
Juveniles are more suggestible
and susceptible to social influence,
06:56
like the intense pressure
accusations and suggestions
07:02
coming from authority
figures in interrogations.
07:05
More than 70 percent
of the teens in our study said
07:09
that the police had tried
to "befriend" them
07:12
or indicate a desire to help them out
during the interrogation.
07:14
These are referred to
as "minimization strategies,"
07:18
and they're designed to convey
sympathy and understanding to the suspect,
07:21
and they imply that a confession
will result in more lenient treatment.
07:25
So in the classic
good-cop-bad-cop oversimplification
07:30
of police interrogations,
07:33
this is "good cop."
07:35
(Video) P1: Honesty here, Brendan,
is the thing that's going to help you, OK?
07:36
No matter what you did,
07:40
we can work through that, OK?
07:41
We can't make any promises,
07:43
but we'll stand behind you
no matter what you did, OK?
07:45
LM: "No matter what you did,
we can work through that."
07:50
Hints of leniency like you
just saw with Brendan
07:53
are especially powerful among adolescents,
07:55
in part because they evaluate reward
and risk differently than adults do.
07:58
Confessing brings an immediate reward
to the suspect, right?
08:03
Now the stressful, unpleasant
interrogation is over.
08:06
So confessing may seem like
the best option to most teens,
08:09
who are less focused on that long-term
risk of conviction and punishment
08:13
down the road
08:17
as a result of that confession.
08:18
I think we can all agree
that thoughtful, long-term planning
08:20
is not a strength of most
teenagers that we know.
08:23
And by and large,
the legal system seems to get
08:27
that young victims and witnesses
should be treated differently than adults.
08:29
But when it comes to young suspects,
it's like the kid gloves come off.
08:33
And treating juveniles as though
they're adults in interrogations
08:38
is a problem,
08:41
because literally hundreds
08:42
of psychological
and neuroscientific studies
08:44
tell us that juveniles
do not think like adults,
08:46
they do not behave like adults,
08:48
and they're not built like adults.
08:50
Adolescent brains are different
from adult brains --
08:53
even anatomically.
08:56
So there are important changes happening
08:58
in the structure and function
of the brain during adolescence,
09:00
especially in the prefrontal cortex
and the limbic system,
09:04
and these are areas that are crucial
for things like self-control,
09:07
decision-making,
09:11
emotion processing and regulation
09:13
and sensitivity to reward and risk,
09:15
all of which can affect how you function
in a stressful circumstance,
09:18
like a police interrogation.
09:21
We need to educate law enforcement,
09:23
attorneys, judges and jurors
09:26
on juveniles' developmental limitations
09:28
and how they can play out
in a high-stakes interrogation.
09:30
In one national survey of police officers,
09:34
75 percent of them actually requested
specialized training
09:36
in how to talk to children
and adolescents --
09:39
most of them had had none.
09:42
We also need to consider having special
protections in place for juveniles.
09:44
In his 91-page decision to overturn
Dassey's conviction earlier this year,
09:48
the judge made a big deal about the fact
that Dassey had no parent
09:53
or other allied adult
09:56
in the interrogation room with him.
09:57
So here's a clip of Brendan talking
to his mom after he confessed,
10:00
when it was obviously
far too late for him.
10:04
(Video) Mom: What do you mean?
10:08
Brendan: Like, if his story
is, like, different,
10:09
like I never did nothing or something.
10:12
M: Did you?
10:15
Huh?
10:19
B: Not really.
10:20
M: What do you mean, "Not really"?
10:22
B: They got into my head.
10:25
LM: So he sums it up pretty
beautifully there:
10:27
"They got into my head."
10:29
We don't know if the outcome
would have been different for Brendan
10:30
if his mom had been
in the interrogation room with him.
10:34
But it's certainly possible.
10:36
In our research, only seven percent
of incarcerated teens,
10:38
most of whom had had numerous
encounters with police,
10:42
had ever had a parent or attorney
in the room with them
10:45
when they were questioned as a suspect.
10:48
Few had ever asked for a parent
or attorney to be present.
10:50
And you see this
in lower-stake situations, too.
10:55
We did a mock interrogation
experiment in our lab here at FIU --
10:57
with parent permission
for all minors, of course,
11:02
and all the appropriate ethical approvals.
11:04
We falsely accused teens and adults
of cheating on a study task --
11:07
an academic dishonesty offense --
11:11
that we told them was as serious
as cheating in a class.
11:13
In reality, participants
had witnessed a peer cheat,
11:17
someone who was actually part
of our research team
11:19
and was allegedly on academic probation.
11:22
And we gave everyone a tough choice:
11:25
you can lose your extra credit
for participating in the study
11:27
or accuse your peer,
11:30
who will probably be expelled
because of his academic probation status.
11:31
Of course, in reality, none of these
consequences would have panned out,
11:35
and we fully debriefed
all of the participants afterward.
11:39
But most teenagers --
59 percent of them --
11:41
signed the confession statement,
11:45
falsely taking responsibility
for the cheating.
11:47
Only three teens out of 74,
11:50
or about four percent of them,
11:53
asked to talk to a parent
when we accused them of cheating,
11:54
despite the fact that for most of them,
11:57
their parent was literally sitting
in the next room during the study.
11:59
Of course, cheating is far from murder,
12:04
and I know that.
12:07
But it's interesting that so many teens,
significantly more teens than adults,
12:08
signed the confession
saying that they cheated.
12:13
They hadn't cheated,
12:17
but they signed this form anyway
saying that they had,
12:18
rarely attempting to involve
a parent in the situation.
12:21
Other studies tell the same story.
12:25
Over 90 percent of juveniles
waive their Miranda rights
12:27
and submit to police questioning
without lawyers or parents present.
12:30
In England and Wales, interrogations
of juveniles must be conducted
12:34
in the presence of an "appropriate adult,"
12:38
like a parent, guardian or social worker.
12:40
And this isn't something
youth have to ask for --
12:43
which is great, because research
shows that they won't --
12:45
it's automatic.
12:48
Now, having an appropriate adult
safeguard for juveniles here in the US
12:51
would not be a cure-all for improving
police questioning of youth.
12:54
Unfortunately, parents often lack
the knowledge and legal sophistication
12:59
to appropriately advise their children.
13:03
You can just look at the case
of the Central Park Five:
13:05
five teenagers who falsely confessed
to a brutal gang rape in 1989,
13:08
with their parents by their sides.
13:13
And it took over a decade
to clear their names.
13:16
So the appropriate adult
really should be an attorney
13:19
or perhaps a trained child advocate.
13:22
Overturning Dassey's conviction, the judge
pointed out that there's no federal law
13:26
requiring that the police
even inform a juvenile's parent
13:30
that the juvenile is being questioned
13:33
or honor that juvenile's request
to have a parent in the room.
13:35
So if you think about all
of this together for a second:
13:39
as a country, we've decided
that juveniles cannot be trusted
13:42
with things like voting,
13:46
buying cigarettes,
13:48
attending an R-rated movie
13:49
or driving,
13:51
but they can make the judgment call
to waive their Miranda rights,
13:52
rights that we know from research,
most teens don't understand or appreciate.
13:56
And parents in the room: depending
on the state that you live in,
14:01
your child can potentially waive
these rights without your knowledge
14:04
and without consulting any adult first.
14:07
Now, no one -- and certainly not
me -- wants to prevent police
14:11
from doing the very important
investigative work
14:14
that they do every day.
14:17
But we need to make sure that they have
appropriate training for talking to youth.
14:19
As a parent and as a researcher,
14:23
I think we can do better.
14:25
I think we can take steps to prevent
another Brendan Dassey,
14:28
while still getting the crucial
information that we need
14:31
from children and teens
14:35
to solve crimes.
14:36
Thank you.
14:37
(Applause)
14:39

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About the speaker:

Lindsay Malloy - Developmental psychology professor, researcher
Lindsay Malloy studies how kids function in a legal system that was designed for adults.

Why you should listen

Dr. Lindsay Malloy has devoted her career to improving justice for vulnerable youth, including working to develop more appropriate interrogation methods and investigative interviewing techniques for children and teens.

Malloy received her PhD in psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine before conducting postdoctoral work at the University of Cambridge in England. After earning tenure at Florida International University in Miami, FL, she moved to Canada where she is now an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, ON. Malloy's research has been funded by the US National Science Foundation, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the US Department of Health and Human Services. She has received early career awards from the American Psychology-Law Society (Division 41 of the American Psychological Association), the Society for Child and Family Policy and Practice (Division 37 of the American Psychological Association) and the International Investigative Interviewing Research Group, for her contributions to science, policy and practice.

More profile about the speaker
Lindsay Malloy | Speaker | TED.com