Editor’s Note: Marty Tankleff, J.D., was sentenced to prison for the murder of his parents before his conviction was overturned nearly 18 years later. He is now an Adjunct Professor of Government at Georgetown University and a Member of the New York State Task Force on Wrongful Convictions. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Being a teenager is tough. There’s a promise of maturity in the offing, but you’re not there yet – which is why society restricts teenage driving, drinking and many other adult activities. Indeed, authorities ranging from leading psychologists to the Supreme Court have recognized that the adolescent brain is not yet developed enough to expect teens to handle life’s challenges the same way as an adult would.
This commonsense reality doesn’t evaporate for kids who are being questioned about crimes. Decades ago, the Supreme Court articulated that courts should evaluate teenagers’ confessions with special care, because kids aren’t able to cope with the psychological challenges of police interrogation in the same way adults do.
On June 14, the court will consider whether this requirement is still sound when it meets behind closed doors and discusses whether to take up the case of Brendan Dassey, an intellectually impaired Wisconsin boy who, according to his lawyers, gave a coerced confession to murder at age 16.
Dassey became famous after his story was featured in Netflix’s “Making a Murderer.” His videotaped interrogation was unforgettable: police falsely promised Dassey he’d be set free if he confessed and then coached him on how the crime unfolded when he was unable to guess even the most basic details. Shockingly, Dassey remains imprisoned for life after a federal appeals court ruled that his confession should not be thrown out.
There is a desperate need for the court to take Dassey’s case – and I should know. As a seventeen-year-old, I was manipulated during interrogation into confessing – falsely – to killing my own parents. And just like the courts may have failed to protect Dassey, they failed to protect me.
After my beloved parents were murdered in our Long Island home in 1988, police questioned me for hours with no attorney present, insisted I was guilty, and falsely claimed both that my father had implicated me before dying and that my hair had been found in my mother’s hands.
Terrified, I began to question whether I had blacked out and committed these crimes. Encouraging this line of thinking, police eventually suggested incriminating scenarios: Could I have used the watermelon knife on the kitchen counter to stab my mother? Could I have used the barbells in my room to attack my father? To escape the nightmare of interrogation, I eventually endorsed their leading questions – even though I did not kill the parents I loved.
Just like the tactics used on Dassey, shown in “Making a Murderer,” the courts turned a blind eye to the trickery and leading questions that my interrogators used. And just like Dassey, I was tried, convicted, and sentenced to spend decades in prison.
I was released almost eighteen long and terrible years later, after new evidence and witnesses established others were responsible for the crime and disproved the story that had been fed to me during my interrogation. There wasn’t any blood on the barbells after all, and there was nothing but a sliver of watermelon on the knife. As I did, Dassey is fighting his conviction now, while the world watches.
What really haunts me about Dassey’s case is how similarly it parallels my own. Before the evidence that proved my innocence came to light, I appealed my case on the basis that I had been manipulated into a false confession. The New York courts split 3-2 in favor of upholding my conviction.
The dissenting judges pointed out how the majority never considered how my youthfulness made me more vulnerable in the interrogation room – or evaluated my confession with any special care at all. And in Brendan’s case, a federal court split 4-3 in favor of keeping him in prison – with the dissenting judges calling out the majority for failing to use special care.
Our stories – and the stories of many other juvenile confessors who are subject to manipulative techniques – should make anyone with a conscience scream out loud. Have we learned nothing? Courts need to start taking Supreme Court precedent seriously when evaluating kids’ confessions.
Dassey’s case is a perfect vehicle for sending that message: It should be obvious to anyone watching his interrogation video that this is not a voluntary confession. His case should lead the Supreme Court to reinvigorate the “special care” doctrine it adopted long ago to protect kids like him, and me, from an unwinnable game of “gotcha” in the interrogation room – and the unjust consequences that can so easily destroy those same children’s lives.