In 1961, a Yale scientist carried out an experiment that quickly achieved notoriety verging on infamy. No one suffered direct harm, but test subjects learned something about themselves they might not have wanted to know.
To perform the experiment, Stanley Milgram recruited dozens of volunteers, ordinary people from all walks of life. He told them they were participating in a study to assess how punishment affects learning. Test subjects believed they were doling out electric shocks to a volunteer who was physically restrained in another room. They were told to increase the voltage with each wrong answer.
Only later did these subjects learn the setup was rigged, and no one really got shocked. The purpose of the Milgram experiment was to test obedience to authority, and the results were alarming. No less than 65 percent of the subjects completed the experiment, turning up the voltage and flipping the switch until they were told to stop. They continued even after the man in the other room began to shout, complain of a heart problem, and beg to be released. They continued even after he fell silent and did not respond at all to the questions.
No one forced them to go on. They did it simply because the man directing the experiment told them to continue.
Milgram’s research followed from an earlier study that was designed to test social conformity. Groups of people assembled in a room, where an examiner held up simple diagrams and asked a question for which the correct answer was obvious: which two lines are the same length?
Only one member of each group was a test subject, although he or she did not know that. Everyone else played a scripted role.
The researcher found that when scripted participants all gave the same wrong answer, many of the test subjects gave that answer too. Over many rounds of questioning, only about 25 percent of the test subjects consistently defied the group by giving the correct answers.
In the wake of this early research, similar experiments have confirmed how easy it is to manipulate someone in a controlled setting, without resorting to force or intimidation. People will do things that seem baffling to anyone who did not go through the experience.
It is not really surprising, therefore, that Brendan Dassey confessed to a crime he did not commit. He was a 16-year-old kid with an IQ of about 70. Who could possibly be more susceptible to trickery?
Police realized they were dealing with an easy mark, so they used a subtle but effective form of psychological coercion. Instead of browbeating Dassey, they pretended to be his friends. They began the interview by saying “how are you doing, buddy?”
They told Dassey his best interests lay in cooperating with them, and they led him to believe he had nothing to fear.
“By you talking with us, it’s helping you.”
“We’re on your side.”
“We’ll stand behind you no matter what you did.”
They stressed the importance of honesty, but they also told Dassey, over and over, that they already knew the truth – they had the right answers.
“We already know what happened that day.”
“We’re going to be able to tell when you’re not being honest.”
In fact, Dassey did not help himself by talking to police. They were not on his side, and they did not stand behind him. Police used a framework of lies and deception to play a dull-witted teenager against himself, to coax him into telling the fable they wanted to hear. It worked exactly as a social scientist would have predicted.
To those who follow wrongful convictions, the approach used with Dassey is far from unique. Steve Drizin, an expert on false confessions, called it “the help theme” in a recent media interview. Drizin is involved in Dassey’s case, and he is also involved in an Idaho case where police used the same approach on another suspect.
In 1997, a young man named Chris Tapp confessed to the brutal murder of a teenage girl with whom he was acquainted. His videotaped statements, like those of Brendan Dassey, evolved under the guidance of a police detective who presented himself as a sympathetic adviser. In an interrogation process that spanned many days, he and his colleagues led Tapp to believe they would protect him no matter what he said. They advised Tapp that his own best interest lay in telling the story they wanted to hear.
Initially, police got Tapp to accuse someone else whom they suspected. Then they got him to admit he was present when the murder took place. Eventually Tapp went along with a grotesque scenario in which he and two other men simultaneously raped the victim before killing her. Tapp was convicted of murder on the basis of his statements, and he remains in prison to this day.
Was Tapp really involved in this murder? No. His confession bears no resemblance to the crime that actually took place. Everything points to a single perpetrator who acted alone. The victim was not raped, but the killer did leave behind a complete DNA profile. This profile has never been matched to anyone. It does not match Tapp, nor does it match any of the other people whom Tapp was set up to accuse. Tapp was unable to name the perpetrator who left DNA at the crime scene. He really knew nothing about the murder except what was fed to him by police.
Mike Heavey, a retired Seattle judge, has formed an organization called Judges for Justice, which is publicly supporting the effort to overturn Tapp’s conviction.
Heavey has put together a lengthy video that shows exactly how police manipulated Tapp by gaining his trust and pitching themselves as advocates who were looking out for his interests. For those who have become consumed by Making a Murderer, it is well worth watching:
A shorter video, summarizing the case, is also available on Youtube:
It might be reassuring to imagine that cases like this are rare. Unfortunately they are common, as reflected in a growing number of exonerations brought about by post-conviction DNA testing or careful review. Many cases involve egregious conduct by public officials.
Viewers of Making a Murderer have been driven to fury, especially after watching excerpts from Dassey’s interrogation. Where is common sense in all of this? How can anyone believe Dassey raped and stabbed a woman in a room where no trace of her blood or DNA was found? Why didn’t anyone put a stop to this travesty?
Stanley Milgram, haunted by the implications of his own research, suggested an answer to these questions. He realized the potential for malice resides in ordinary people. Its emergence depends on circumstances as much as character. Police conducting an interrogation may perceive themselves as agents, serving the aims of the organization they represent, without feeling the burden of personal responsibility. As they see it, they are simply doing their job. Ruthless manipulation of a suspect is like flipping the switch to deliver an electric shock. Milgram called this the “agentic state.”
The research that helps explain Brendan Dassey’s confession thus sheds a light on the conduct of public officials as well. In the bleak annals of wrongful conviction, the agentic state looms as a real and pervasive phenomenon. We see it again and again. Once the criminal justice system takes the position that someone is guilty of a crime, especially in a high profile case where public credibility is at stake, individuals within the system will usually do whatever it takes to sustain that position. They refuse to admit the possibility of error. They embrace any ploy or strategy that serves their purpose. They treat exculpatory facts, no matter how compelling, as a problem to be overcome.
Long before scientists began to map these patterns of human behavior, political and legal theorists grasped the pitfalls of criminal justice and considered how to avoid them. In every open society, criminal defendants enjoy the right to a public trial. This right is enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. It is a vital safeguard to individual liberties, because public oversight makes it harder for zealous officials to railroad innocent people.
The catch is that the public must pay attention, and must not assume the authorities always know what they are doing. Because of Making a Murderer, the public is paying close attention to Brendan Dassey’s case. He is quite obviously the victim of a grave injustice. So are Chris Tapp and countless other innocent people who are stuck behind bars. Many of their stories can be found on the Injustice Anywhere forum.
Everyone is welcome to sign up and join the discussion at Injustice Anywhere. The purpose of the forum is to discuss action steps on behalf of specific individuals who have been wrongfully convicted, and to raise awareness of an overall problem. We recognize that much of the time, the court system functions as intended – but not always. Sometimes the agentic state runs amok. In Milgram’s words, “people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without meditation of the conscience.”* Those are the cases we examine on Injustice Anywhere. When criminal prosecution devolves into an elaborate Milgram experiment, it’s time for outsiders to step in and demand a different protocol, one that reflects fact and reason. Criminal justice is the public’s business.
* This is how Milgram described his findings in a documentary film called Obedience. The context is as follows: “The results, as I observed them in the laboratory, are disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature cannot be counted on to insulate man from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority. A substantial portion of people do what they are told to do, irrespective of the content of the act and without meditation of the conscience, so long as they perceive that the command comes from a legitimate authority. If in this study, an anonymous experimenter could successfully command adults to subdue a 50-year-old man and force on him painful electric shocks against his protests, one can only wonder what government, with its vastly greater authority and prestige, can command of its subjects.”