Third Degree Lite: The Abuse of Confessions

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This year 20 million viewers of Making a Murderer had ring-side seats to the interrogation of Brendan Dassey. The video is a play-by-play of how to extract a confession using what is known as the Reid Method.

This interrogation technique is employed by virtually every law enforcement agency in North America. Over the past half-century, hundreds of thousands of officers have been trained to use it. The point of the Reid Method is not to gather information that will help solve the crime; it is to obtain a confession from a suspect that the police have decided is guilty.

To that end, the detectives bullied and cajoled their 17-year old, 73-IQ suspect, all the while feeding him information about the case, which Dassey compliantly regurgitated. These were not overzealous, rule-breaking detectives. They were following protocol.

As Justice White put it, “A confession is like no other evidence.” It’s a shortcut to a conviction, a complete reversal of the presumption of innocence. Until the mid-20th century, the Third Degree was the dominant method of interrogation. The police would beat a suspect until he confessed and lie about it in court.

They got away with it because judges looked the other way.

Then, in 1931, a commission appointed by President Hoover to investigate Prohibition-related corruption, issued the Wickersham Report, which documented the ubiquitous use of the Third Degree. The report, popularized in a widely-read book, shocked the American public.

The Third Degree had to be abandoned when juries started rejecting confessions and doubting police witnesses. This left police without an effective method of extracting confessions. Into this void stepped John Reid, who obtained convictions in several high-profile cases, including that of Darrell Parker in 1955. Reid touted his technique as a reliable way of obtaining confessions without physical abuse.

The Reid Method embodies the spirit of the Third Degree. It seeks to overcome the suspect’s will by deploying coercive psychological tactics, many of them on display during the Dassey interrogation: magnifying his feelings of helplessness by isolating him for extended periods; lying that there’s overwhelming evidence against him, or that he flunked a lie detector test; minimizing the seriousness of the crime and suggesting, falsely, that he’ll suffer minimal punishment if he fesses up.

The problem is that, like the Third Degree, the Reid Method coerces confessions from the innocent as well as the guilty. There are many proven false confessors: The Central Park Five, Norfolk Four, Beatrice Six, Jeffrey Deskovic, and countless others.

As of 2004, Professors Steven Drizin and Richard Leo had identified 125 such cases. (An update is currently being compiled.)

Sometimes, innocent defendants even come to believe in their own guilt. These are not isolated incidents. Because the Reid Method employs such brute psychological tactics, these are foreseeable, even expected, results.

Poster advertising Ken Burns’ film. Photo via Wikipedia

Reid & Associates, a private organization found to train police officers in the Reid Method, claims that false confessions result only from abusing the method. But Darrell Parker, who was interrogated by Reid himself, was found factually innocent and exonerated 50 years later.

Moreover, the Reid Method’s tactics are inherently subject to abuse. For example, it is common for interrogators to feed suspects details known only by investigators and the perpetrator. At trial, prosecutors then argue that the confession must be genuine because it contains details that only to the culprit would know.

In Dassey’s case, Prof. Leo found that approximately half of the 17 corroborating pieces of evidence claimed by the prosecution were prompted by interrogators. The Dassey District Court recounts many of these, the most remarkable of which concerns the shooting.

The detectives work hard to get Dassey to volunteer that the victim was shot in the head, but come up short again and again. Finally, an exasperated detective says: “I’m just going to come out and ask you—who shot her in the head?”

Dassey responds that Avery did and, in doing so, incriminates himself.

In Miranda v. Arizona, the Supreme Court identified the Reid Method as an engine for stripping suspects of their Fifth and Sixth Amendment rights. The Court designed the Miranda warnings to give people the keys to the interrogation room door, but in reality, very few effectively exercise their Miranda rights.

Innocent people are particularly unlikely to invoke Miranda, naïvely believing that the truth will set them free. Miranda also creates the presumption that the confession is voluntary, making it next-to-impossible to prove it’s coerced. False confessions, time and time again, prove themselves so powerful that they convict innocent defendants even in the face of exculpating DNA evidence.

Fortunately, scientifically grounded methods are cropping up, such as PEACE, used with success in England, and HIG, developed by the CIA to interrogate suspected terrorists after the public backlash against waterboarding. LAPD has piloted the HIG method with promising resultsWicklander-Zulawski & Associates, one of the largest police training organizations, publicly denounced the Reid Method after having taught it for over three decades.

Americans have great faith in their justice system—law enforcement in particular. But they react forcefully when that trust is betrayed.

The Wickersham Report’s outing of the Third Degree led to its abandonment. When the abuses at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo became public, law enforcement had to find other methods of interrogating suspected terrorists. Documented police abuses are forcing change in the way police patrol many urban areas.

If the public were to become aware of psychological torment inflicted on criminal suspects using the current Reid Method, many of them innocent, they would force law enforcement to adopt new methods of interrogation that do not trample on constitutional rights.

America is waking up. It’s time for another Wickersham Commission to investigate the uses and abuses of the Reid Method by federal, state and local law enforcement authorities—some 20,000 nationwide. Wickersham II should include representatives of all interested parties—police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, criminal justice scholars and, most importantly, exonerated false confessors who can report first-hand how they came to inculpate themselves in heinous crimes they did not commit.

Wyatt Kozinski

If the Reid Method can withstand the tsunami of criticism compiled in my paper, then it will be validated as a useful law enforcement tool. I believe, however, that the Reid Method will be shown for what it really is: The Third Degree of the psyche.

Wyatt Kozinski is a student at the University of Virginia Law School. He has an undergraduate degree in Cognitive Psychology from the University of California at Irvine. He welcomes comments from readers, and can be reached on Twitter. @WyattKozinski

5 thoughts on “Third Degree Lite: The Abuse of Confessions

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  3. Wyatt, did you see the full interview of Brendan Dassey or just the excerpts on Netflix? The reason I ask is because that interview was not and did not, use the Reid Method! Point number two, hundreds of detectives in this country will say they use the Reid Method, when in fact they use part of it and have changed the method to suit their cause; therefore, they have not really used the method as taught and therefore cause some confusion. There are a set of steps that have to be followed to the letter for the technique to be the Reid Method and most do not follow those steps correctly. Personally, I am not myself in particular favor of the method but don’t like seeing it bashed because of incorrect gathering of the data where incorrect conclusions are drawn by researchers.

  4. Dr. Adcock,

    Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I understand your argument to be that the detectives in the Dassey case were not using the Reid Method because they did not strictly adhere to the rules and guidelines. I must respectfully disagree.

    There were several tactics used during Brendan Dassey’s interrogation that are hallmark features of the Reid Method: the detectives isolated Dassey; they used an accusatory rather than an investigatory approach; they insisted that they were convinced of Dassey’s guilt; they would not accept his denials–to name the ones that I have personally observed in my viewing of the extended interview.

    But the clearest evidence that the Reid Method was used is the fact that Joseph Buckley, President of Reid & Associates, testified as an expert in defense of the interrogation. In his testimony, Buckley offers many examples of how he claims the interrogation was unbiased; he nowhere claims that the interrogation was conducted in contravention to the Reid Method.

    Another important indicator is an affidavit filed in the case by Dr. Richard Leo, a preeminent scholar in the field of false confessions.

    Dr. Leo reviewed the interrogation in full, as well as Mr. Buckley’s defense of it, and concluded that this was typical Reid.

    One of the more troubling aspects of the Reid Method is how extremely susceptible it is to being abused.
    For example, one of the official “best practices” is that it should only be used “when there is a reasonable belief that the suspect is guilty or withholding information.” However, there is no framework or oversight as to what constitutes reasonable belief. And once the decision to interrogate is made, interrogations go on until the detectives are personally satisfied with the results. If, for example, the method had built into it a required self-evaluation that must be filled out every hour of interrogation, that simple and humane requirement would surely prevent at least some abusive interrogations.

    There are many other aspects of the Reid Method that raise similar concerns that go unaddressed by Reid & Associates, but are proactively safeguarded against by PEACE.

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