The Injustice of Juvenile Justice – The Brendan Dassey Case

Every year tens of thousands of juveniles across the United States are processed through the court system. However, despite the growing number of cases involving juveniles, law enforcement officials and judges in the lower courts have failed to follow guidelines and instructions set forth through Supreme Court precedents. This essay will look the history of juvenile justice, how it has evolved, as well as Supreme Court decisions pertaining to the treatment of juveniles and the many ways lower courts have not upheld those standards.

History of Juvenile Justice

18th-century law treated juvenile and adult offenders the same. Minors were subjected to the same degree of punishment as adults, including whipping and death. It wasn’t until the latter part of the 19th-century, after the Civil War, that the first juvenile court was created and the parens patriae doctrine established court jurisdiction over juveniles. The doctrine, which was founded upon the belief that children were “less mature” and should not be held accountable for their behavior, placed focus on the rehabilitation of juveniles rather than on punishment.   However, in exchange for leniency, juveniles were denied basic constitutional rights (e.g. the right to an attorney) and were found guilty without being given the fairness of their day in court. Instead, the decision lied solely in the hands of the juvenile court judge. A massive number of juveniles were being locked away in detention centers, institutions and training schools every year for offenses as minor as disobeying their parents (Lawrence & Hesse 2010).

In the 1980s, the juvenile justice system underwent major changes. As a response to the increase of serious crimes being committed by juveniles, state legislators began to pass more punitive laws. The new laws completely reshaped the juvenile justice system to mirror that of the adult system, making it possible for juveniles to be transferred over to adult court and subjecting them to capital punishment. In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled “the imposition of the death penalty on persons who were under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes was cruel and unusual punishment and therefore a violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments” (Roper v. Simmons U.S. 125 S. Ct. 1113, Lawrence & Hess 2010).

What Does the Supreme Court Say About the Treatment of Juveniles?

In re Gault (1967), the U.S. Supreme Court pointed out lower court’s failure to provide juveniles basic procedural safeguards. One such issue was the failure to accord the privilege against self-incrimination and whether juveniles possess the level of maturity to understand and/or waive their Miranda rights. The California Supreme Court developed the “totality of circumstances” doctrine, which tests the waiver of a juvenile in order to determine whether it is valid. The case further addresses the issue of “inherent coercion” in police interrogations and suggests the presence of a juvenile court officer or another “supportive adult” to prevent coercion. One of the biggest problems with interrogating juveniles is the “increased vulnerability” to “inherent coercion.” While most interrogations do not employ the use of physical threats, more subtle tactics are likely to be effective with juveniles. Further, juveniles are especially susceptible to the use of friendliness for the purpose of playing on their insecurities (Grisso & Pomicter 1977).

The Supreme Court has consistently overturned lower court’s rulings based on the idea that a juvenile does not possess the maturity and intelligence to voluntarily waive their Miranda rights. In T.C. v. State (2010), the Supreme Court overturned a twelve-year-old boy’s delinquency adjudication based on the idea that he did not knowingly or intelligently waive his Miranda rights before confessing to murder. In J.B.D. v North Carolina (2011) the Supreme Court recognizes that children would most likely feel bound to answer questions where an adult would not.

In addition to previously mentioned disadvantages (e.g. intelligence and maturity), the Supreme Court has acknowledged that juveniles are “no match” for adult interrogators. That understanding has resulted in the reversal of many trial court decisions, such as that in Haley v. Ohio (1948), in which a fifteen-year-old boy made a confession after five hours of being interrogated by a team of detectives. The court concluded stated, “Mature men possibly might stand the ordeal from midnight to 5 a.m. But we cannot believe that a lad of tender years is a match for the police in such a contest” (OJJDP 2018).

In Crowe v. County of San Diego (2010),  it was concluded a fourteen-year-old boy who confessed to murdering his sister was “compelled to falsely confess when officers used inappropriate questioning techniques, such as lying about the evidence and promising him help rather than prison in exchange for an admission of guilt (OJJDP 2018).

Lastly, the Court points out essential differences between juveniles and adults in Roper v. Simmons (2005), noting that juveniles are “more susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures than adults” (OJJDP 2018).

Injustice Exposed

Perhaps one of the most widely known and appropriate examples of extreme injustice in the juvenile justice system is that of Brendan Dassey, who was sixteen-years-old at the time of his arrest and conviction. The victim was twenty-five year old Teresa Halbach, a photographer for a magazine called “Auto Trader”, who disappeared after visiting Dassey’s uncle, Steven Avery, on October 31, 2006. Halbach was reportedly at the Avery farm for the purpose of photographing a vehicle owned by Avery. On November 5th, Halbach’s vehicle was found on Avery’s property (in a salvage yard that he owned) and her remains were discovered in various places on the property (Lee 2016).

After four interviews in forty-eight hours, detectives were able to obtain a confession confirming everything they had set out to prove. His confession stated that he had come home from school that day and had gotten the mail. He then went to his uncle Steven’s trailer to give him his mail and found him in the act of sexually assaulting Halbach. His uncle allegedly invited the teen to “join” in. After raping and torturing Halbach, Dassey claims that they killed her by cutting her throat. At this point, the detectives led Dassey by asking, “what happened to her head.” Not sure what to say, Dassey replies by saying that they “cut her hair.” The investigators asked the same question multiple times until they received the answer they were looking for, which was that they shot her in the head. Dassey, who had already stated that they killed her in the trailer, then says that they took her outside by the garage where his uncle shot Halbach about ten times with a .22 caliber rifle. Among other conflicting statements within Dassey’s story, there is one major issue. Not a shred of DNA puts Halbach inside the home (YouTube – Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey Cases 2015).

Dassey’s confession was the sole reason for the trial court’s decision to charge him with first-degree murder, mutilation of a corpse, and second-degree sexual assault, which landed him with a life imprisonment sentence with possibility of parole in 2048 (Lee 2016).

Dassey’s case, in which he was found guilty of sexually assaulting and murdering Halbach with his uncle Steven Avery, received world-wide attention through the Netflix series known as “Making a Murderer.” The show exposed questionable interrogation tactics in the course of extracting confessions from minors, particularly that of Brenden Dassey. “The video of Brendan’s interrogation shows a confused boy who was manipulated by experienced police officers into accepting their story of how the murder of Teresa Halbach happened” (Barnes 2018). Brendan’s interrogation videos, which are available on YouTube, exposed the detectives fact-feeding the socially awkward teen and promising him leniency in exchange for a confession. In addition to failing to consider Dassey’s age and level of intelligence/maturity, there is the obvious use of coercion and lack of a supportive adult to comfort Dassey through the grueling process (YouTube – Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey Cases 2015).

Dassey’s attorney, Laura Nirider from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center of Wrongful Convictions of Youth, has filed numerous appeals. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld the conviction due to the fact that Dassey had been read his rights and that his mother consented to the interview but his luck appeared to have changed when the federal court and 7th Circuit Court ruled in Dassey’s favor. Unfortunately, their decision was overturned when the State of Wisconsin demanded a full panel hearing. In part, that decision read, “Dassey spoke with the interrogators freely, after receiving and understanding Miranda warnings, and with his mother’s consent. The interrogation took place in a comfortable setting, without any physical coercion or intimidation, without even raised voices, and over a relatively brief time. Dassey provided many of the most damning details himself in response to open-ended questions.” However, “the three dissenting judges called the decision ‘a profound miscarriage of justice.’

Application of Case Law to the Dassey Case

The State argued, and the panel agreed, that Dassey was read his rights and that his mother consented to the interview. However, they failed to acknowledge some very important details that, according to precedents set by their own courts, went against every guideline that they had previously set for lower courts when deciding the fate of a juvenile.  One such consideration that they had disregarded was that Dassey lacked the intelligence and sophistication to understand the implications of this decision. Furthermore, they failed to apply the “totality of circumstances” that was laid out by the California Supreme Court (Grisso & Pomicter 1977).

The State further argued that Dassey’s confession was not coerced, and the majority agreed based on their observations of a “comfortable setting” and friendly demeanor of the detectives throughout the course of the interrogation. However, they failed to recognize that inappropriate questioning techniques are not limited to physical threats or verbal aggression. Rather, the Supreme Court has found that “inherent coercion” includes lying about evidence that has already been obtained and promising to help the juvenile in exchange for a confession, which detectives did in their interrogation(s) of Brendan Dassey (OJJDP 2018).

Finally, the appellant court failed to recognize the difference between adults and juveniles as defined in Roper v. Simmons (2005). In short, juveniles are “more susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures than adults” (OJJDP 2018). In the case of Brendan Dassey, the adults around him (e.g. the detectives and even his own lawyer) express disappointment in him when he fails to give them the answer(s) they are attempting to get from him. Dassey, who clearly cares a great deal about pleasing them, makes every attempt to satisfy their efforts to the point of partaking in a guessing game until arriving at the right answer.

The injustice did not stop there for Dassey because, due to the seriousness of the crime, he was transferred to adult court. One could argue that this was an appropriate action given the seriousness of the crime. However, based on the fact that the State’s entire case revolved around a confession that was obtained by shady police tactics, the confession should have been inadmissible and the case should have been thrown out of court.

Conclusion

Over the course of the last hundred years, the juvenile justice system has transitioned from informal to formal and has failed to find a balance between the two. On one end of the spectrum (informal) a juvenile’s basic human rights are denied while the other end (formal) subjects them to punishment that is not suitable for a child. Unfortunately, it is not a problem that is easily resolved and fixing it would mean to completely restructure the juvenile justice system from the ground up. From interrogations to sentencing, the juvenile justice system must encompass standards that uphold Supreme Court decisions and, ultimately, one’s Constitutional rights.

Brendan Dassey is not alone when it comes to being mistreated by the juvenile justice system. However, Dassey’s case has raised awareness and exposed the unethical practices of the juvenile justice system at local and state levels. The public outcry for harsher punitive laws for juveniles is based on the assumption of guilt but considering the circumstances surrounding the treatment of juveniles in the interrogation room, how can one know whether a confession is valid or not?

On the subject of transfers, it is agreeable that there are some circumstances in which a transfer to adult court would be appropriate. However, until the process of obtaining confessions is corrected, the confession of a minor should not be the basis of a conviction and juveniles should be awarded the possibility of rehabilitation.

In closing, the treatment of minors in the juvenile justice system is unfair and unjust. They are manipulated into giving false confessions in which detectives play on their insecurities. They are often times transferred to adult courts for crimes that they may not have committed or that were committed at a time that they were too immature to understand the implications of their behavior. This problem can only be reconciled by totally restructuring the juvenile justice system into a system that respects and abides by the Supreme Court’s set of standards and holding law enforcement officers and court officials accountable for failure to do so.

References

Barnes, R. (2018). Supreme court won’t hear the case of Brendan Dassey, sentenced to life and featured in ‘Making a Murderer’. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/supreme-court-wont-hear-the-case-of-brendan-dassey-a-teen-sentenced-to-life-and-featured-in-making-a-murderer/2018/06/25/6f97336e-787c-11e8-93cc-6d3beccdd7a3_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.02c3423810f8.

Grisso, J.T., Pomicter, C. (1977). Interrogation of juveniles: An empirical study of procedures, safeguards and rights waiver

Stimson, C. (2015). Adult punishment for juveniles. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2012/06/05/when-to-punish-a-young-offender-and-when-to-rehabilitate/adult-punishments-for-juveniles.

Loughran, T.A., Mulvey, E.P., Schubert, C.A., Chassin, L.A., Steinberg, L., Piquero, A.R., Fagan, J., Cota-Robles, S., Cauffman, E., Losoya, S. (2010). Differential effects of adult court transfer on juvenile offender recidivism. American Psychology-Law Society/Division 41 of the American Psychology Association.

OJJP. (2018). Introduction to developing rapport with youth. Retrieved from: http://elearning-courses.net/iacp/jjRapportContent/resourcefolder/Key%20Court%20Decisions%20Juvenile%20Interview%20Interrogation.pdf.

Lee, J. (2006). Report details Halbach’s death. Post Crescent. Retrieved from https://www.postcrescent.com/story/news/local/steven-avery/2016/01/07/report-details-halbachs-death/78437306/.

YouTube. (2015). Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey cases. Retrieved from https://www