Can you imagine confessing to a crime you didn’t commit? The prospect seems counterintuitive, yet the work of organizations such as the Innocence Project and documentaries like The Central Park Five have shown the phenomenon of false confessions to be widespread. Anatomy of a False Confession: The Interrogation and Conviction of Brendan Dassey by criminal defense attorney Michael D. Cicchini examines the methods of police interrogators and their psychological impact on the accused, which often lead innocent people to believe that confessing would be in their best interest.
Over the course of five interrogations in a six-month period, Brendan Dassey, a teenager from Manitowoc County, Wis., confessed to assaulting and murdering Teresa Halbach with his uncle Steven Avery in 2005. After the case was profiled in the Netflix series Making a Murderer, Cicchini says, “many people were angry about the way the interrogators treated Brendan Dassey. Yet most people were seeing only the tip of the iceberg of what the police and prosecutors did to obtain a confession and win a conviction.”
Anatomy of a False Confession offers a staggering view of what goes on during a police investigation and how the courts systematically uphold faulty confessions. “I wanted to shine a light on the entire process,” Cicchini says. “The police and prosecutors use these tricks in every case, not just in Dassey’s, and we citizens need to know what our government agents are doing.”
Cicchini draws on observations he made early in his criminal defense practice, when he discovered that many of his adult defendants who were charged with misdemeanors had confessed to the police. “I quickly noticed a problem,” Cicchini writes, “My clients… would either deny having confessed or would admit to saying some things to the police that weren’t true.”
As Dassey’s interrogation wore on, the officers led Dassey to agree to their version of what he’d seen and done, rather than accept what he’d originally told them. All of the sessions were recorded, and Cicchini deconstructs the two police officers’ seemingly friendly rapport with Dassey, along with their repeated promises to help him if he helped them, to reveal their true motives. Despite repeated statements to the contrary, the officers did not want to help Dassey; they wanted to convict him.
Perhaps most critically, the police persuaded Dassey to waive his Miranda rights. Cicchini shows how they were able to glide over this fundamental constitutional roadblock with ease, both by minimizing the importance of Miranda, making Dassey believe they were on his side rather than his adversaries (thereby steering him to overlook the conflict of interest that Miranda is meant to protect him from), and by reading the rights in such a way as to essentially change their meaning: “You have the right to, you have the right to talk, to a lawyer for advice before we ask you any questions and have him with you during questioning. You have this right to the advice and presence of a lawyer even though you cannot afford to hire one. We have no way of getting you a lawyer but one will be appointed for you if you wish and if and when you go to court.”
Just before the book was published, the Supreme Court passed on hearing Dassey’s case. “By doing so,” Cicchini says, “the Court, in a sense, has rubber-stamped one of the highest-profile injustices our country has ever seen,” thus further highlighting the need for reform. Of the many critical elements that Cicchini outlines in the book, the best first step, he says, would be to “rewrite the Miranda warning and require the police to read it to the suspect in a meaningful way.” Otherwise, he says, our constitutional rights are not enough to protect us. Cicchini’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in criminal justice reform, and is a riveting addendum to Making a Murderer, one of the most widely discussed true crime narratives in recent history.