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'Making a Murderer' Features Chicago-Style Police Interrogation Technique

By Evan F. Moore | January 5, 2016 6:32am
 Netflix hit
Netflix hit "Making a Murder" mentions a Chicago-style police interrogation tactic.
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Netflix/Getty Images

Spoiler alert: If you haven't finished the series and don't already know how it ends, don't say we didn't warn you. 

CHICAGO — If you, like everyone else on the Internet, spent the holidays binge-watching "Making a Murderer" on Netflix, you might have noticed some local voices weighing in on the Steven Avery case. 

For those unaware, "Making a Murderer" follows the real-life case of Avery and his nephew Brandon Dassey, who were both arrested and charged in the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.

The arrest came just two years after Avery was freed from an 18-year prison stint for a rape he did not commit, and his lawyers believe he was framed by police who were facing steep damages in the wrongful conviction case. 

Did a Chicago policing technique help officers get a false confession out of Dassey, who reportedly had the IQ of a third-grader when he was questioned by police? 

Chicago-based Center on Wrongful Convictions attorneys Steve Drizin and Laura Nirider, who are featured toward the end of the series, said the Reid technique (also known as "the Chicago technique") helped elicit a false confession from the teenager. 

The Reid technique was named for former Chicago Police Officer John E. Reid, and according to an article written by Joseph P. Buckley, president of Reid and Associates, it is extremely successful when used correctly. 

According Reid's website, the law enforcement agencies who took their classes have seen their confession rates go up 25 percent. Chicago Police are among those who use Reid, and it's been in use since the 1940s. But in recent years, DNA evidence has highlighted its flaws. 

"In the past several years, a number of false confession cases have received extensive publicity," Buckley wrote in a published paper for the University of Wisconsin. "In several of these cases the convicted individual has been exonerated by DNA testing and the actual perpetrator, in turn, has been identified. In these cases it is important to examine in detail exactly what happened; what went wrong; what are the lessons to be learned, and what are potential safeguards that can be put into place to prevent future mistakes." 

Buckley goes on to say that most cases of false confessions are linked to juveniles, which Dassey was at the time of the interview, and those with mental impairment, which also fits Dassey's profile. 

“The technique is often misused," Drizin told DNAinfo Chicago. "The Reid’s president [Buckley] has not come to the terms [with the fact that the] technique can lead to innocent people to admitting to crimes they did not commit. When Brendan [Dassey] was questioned, they told him things that only the killer could have known.”

Buckley rejected Drizin's remarks Tuesday and said he's been fighting for the proper use of the technique in his role at Reid and Associates.

"Steve knows better," Buckley said via email. "Just the other day the Governor of Virginia granted clemency to Robert Paul Davis who had been convicted of two murders and sentenced to a 23 year sentence, in part, based on a letter that I wrote at the request of Steve Drizen, pointing out the unreliability of Davis’ confession and the improper interrogation techniques used by the investigators." 

Buckley also said Reid works regularly with the Innocence Project in New York.

In the show, officers feed information to Dassey throughout their interview and he repeatedly changes his story, apparently confused by the gravity of the situation. After officers get what they believe is his confession to slitting Halbach's throat, he asks when he'll be able to get back to school. 

"Everyone has a right under the U.S. Constitution to not have a coerced confession used against them," Nirider said during her appearance in series. 

The Reid technique has a nine-step process that focuses on gaining the suspect's trust and "having the suspect orally relate the details of the crime" that could implicate him or her. The problems arise when police introduce information about the crime to suspects unfit for this sort of interrogation. 

“It’s designed to break a suspect down. They make the suspect look at a confession as the lesser of two evils,” Drizin said. “It makes admissions seem impulsive. It makes a suspect say the death was an accident instead of intentional."

Drizin also said that Reid would have condemned how the interrogation technique is used these days, bur Buckley said his organization takes "extreme care" in teaching the proper technique.

Criminal defense attorney Sam Adam Jr. told DNAinfo Chicago that the Reid method used by Chicago Police during interrogations has come up in multiples cases he's worked on. 

"In most of my murder cases, we've seen issues regarding the taking of statements by police," Adam said. "The way that many of the statements are 'spontaneous,' so that they are admissible without being written." 

Adam gives the example of gun cases, where he believes officers talk a suspect into saying he had a gun for his own protection, and that owning up to that isn't a bad thing to do. Then he's confessed to a crime, when he thinks he's just saying the right thing to stay out of trouble. 

The Reid issue is small compared to the massive problems with the investigation highlighted by the series. 

"Making a Murderer" has spurred outrage on social media over the way the criminal justice system works (and doesn't work), and more than 31,000 people have signed a petition calling for Avery and Dassey to be pardoned. 

Avery is serving life in prison without the possibility of parole. Dassey is eligible for parole in 2048.

Drizin said the show is helping to “educate the public about the process of police interrogation and false confession."

But will it change law enforcement tactics? 

"Only time will tell," he said. 

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