How Should Courts Approach the Issue of Juvenile Confessions?

The issue of how courts should approach juvenile confessions gained a spotlight in the news recently when a federal court in Wisconsin overturned the conviction of Brendan Dassey, who was accused of helping his uncle kill Teresa Halbach, in a case brought to the national spotlight in the Netflix documentary, “Making a Murderer.”

Dassey was arrested at the age of 16 and sentenced to 41 years in prison on charges of first-degree intentional homicide, second-degree sexual assault and mutilation of a corpse after he confessed that he helped his uncle, Steven Avery, kill Halbach in 2005 in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.

Magistrate Judge William E. Duffin in Milwaukee has ordered that Dassey be released in 90 days, unless the case is appealed, according to court documents.

Duffin wrote that investigators made repeated claims to Dassey that they already knew what happened, and falsely promised that he had nothing to worry about. These repeated false promises, when considered in conjunction with all relevant factors – most especially Dassey’s age, intellectual deficits, and the absence of a supportive adult – rendered Dassey’s confession involuntary.

Dassey’s confession was, as a practical matter, the entirety of the case against him on each of the three counts. A recent law review article posted on SSRN gives an academic view of the serious issue facing courts regarding juvenile confessions:

Taking Back Juvenile Confessions 

by Kevin Lapp (Loyola Law School Los Angeles)  


The limited capacity of juveniles to make good decisions on their own — based on centuries of common sense and empirically supported in recent decades by abundant scientific research — informs almost every field of legal doctrine. Recent criminal justice reforms have grounded enhanced protections for youth at punishment and as criminal suspects on their limited cognitive abilities and heightened vulnerability. One area of criminal procedure doctrine lags behind this legal, scientific, and social consensus. Despite historical recognition of the need for special protections for interrogated youth, current law regarding the waiver of the rights to silence and to counsel at interrogation predominantly treats juvenile suspects like adults. This underenforces their privilege against self-incrimination, disrespects their dignity, and raises the risk of wrongful convictions. This Article considers whether interrogation law should correct course by incorporating a rule akin to contract law’s centuries-old infancy doctrine and permit individuals to retract uncounseled Miranda waivers elicited by law enforcement while they were juveniles. The justifications, advantages, and drawbacks to such a doctrinal shift are explored.

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