Making A Murderer May Make Better Defense Jurors
Over the past several years, there has been increased media coverage of allegations that police and/or prosecutors (allegedly) unfairly targeted suspects or defendants. There has been national attention to cases in which police officers kill suspects (e.g., Michael Brown in Ferguson; Freddie Gray in Baltimore) and other cases in which journalists and filmmakers turn a specific case into a documentary. Last year it was the popular podcast Serial, wherein This American Life’s Sarah Koenig investigated the suspicious circumstances surrounding the conviction of Adnan Syed. This year, it’s Netflix’s Making a Murderer. These recent challenges to the U.S. justice system have resonated with a massive number of people, sparking heated conversations across the country. In fact, for the past several weeks, it has been almost impossible to go somewhere and not hear people engaging in passionate discussion about Netflix’s Making a Murderer.
Given the popularity of Making a Murderer, we wondered how stories like these may shape potential jurors’ perceptions in a case with similar issues and affect their willingness (or unwillingness) to convict. Will people who have watched the show be more skeptical of the police? Will jurors be more hesitant to convict someone after watching the show? Will more evidence be required than ever before?
We also wondered whether exposure to a real-life case in which a person may have been coerced into confessing (i.e., Brendan Dassey in Making a Murderer) will prime the general public to the idea that false confessions do in fact occur. Research shows that jurors who hear a confession are more likely to convict than those who don’t and even though jurors can identify an interrogation as coercive, most still believe false confessions are unlikely. So, we thought, now that people have seen a presumably false confession, perhaps they will be more likely to reckon with the idea that someone might be led to confess to something they did not do.
To explore these issues, DOAR conducted a survey on Amazon Mechanical Turk of 382 jury-eligible US residents (52% male, 48% female), half of whom watched Making a Murderer. Watchers and non-watchers had similar demographic breakdowns: age, gender, ethnicity, and education.
We found that about one third of people were skeptical of police in general, regardless of whether or not they watched Making a Murderer.
Results also suggested that watchers (vs. non-watchers) were:
Demographic variables such as ethnicity and education also predicted how people (both watchers and non-watchers) responded to confession evidence:
This finding is striking given widespread concern in non-White communities about the police. We might have expected non-Whites to be more receptive to the possibility that someone could be coerced into confessing. Given the prevailing climate in America, non-Whites likely see themselves as more vulnerable than Whites to false arrest. Therefore, their responses to this question may be more self-referential. They may have responded based on their beliefs that they would not falsely confess and therefore thought the phenomenon was less likely to occur.
The fact that watchers reported a greater likelihood of false confessions, compared to non-watchers, indicates that shows like these may actually change perceptions of confessions and underscores the need for false confession experts in court (though without random assignment to conditions we cannot make any causation claims).
Dr. Saul Kassin, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at John Jay College and renowned false confession expert commented on these findings:
“Every now and then a case comes along that puts criminal injustice on a world stage for all of us to learn from. In this regard, the Making a Murderer convictions of Steven Avery and Brendon Dassey present an unprecedented learning opportunity. Did it work? Although participants in the study reported here were not randomly assigned to watch versus not watch the Netflix documentary, which means they are not necessarily comparable samples to begin with, it is telling—and certainly relevant, say, for jury selection purposes–that people who watched the show were more skeptical of confessions, and more likely to appreciate the possibility of a false confession, than those who did not watch. This is an important finding. ‘Did you watch Making a Murderer?’ may well prove to be a question worth asking in future voir dires.”
This finding has enormous implications for our justice system – indicating that people may be coming around to the idea that false confessions do occur, and it may be due, at least in part, to documentaries like Making a Murderer.
More than one half of watchers believed Brendan Dassey falsely confessed:
Many were hesitant to definitively say whether or not Avery was framed for the murder of Teresa Halbach:
Participants were further asked: Do you believe the person(s) who framed Steven Avery thought he was: a) innocent, but wanted to pin the crime on him b) guilty, but wanted to make a stronger case or c) other, please explain.
Of those who believed Steven Avery was (or could have been) framed for the murder of Teresa Halbach, 58% thought the person(s) who framed him thought he was innocent, but wanted to pin the crime on him and 32% thought the person(s) believed Avery was guilty, but wanted to make a stronger case. The remaining 10% had some interesting theories, such as:
“I feel like they were mad at him for making them look stupid over his false imprisonment and wanted revenge.”
“They had no idea if he was guilty or innocent, but wanted him out of their way.”
“I think the police framed him because they were incompetent.”
If Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are innocent, who should be blamed?
To the extent that watchers believed other individuals or entities should be prosecuted, people were most likely to point to the police and the prosecuting attorneys (they were instructed to check all that apply):
 Kassin, S. M. & Wrightsman, L. S. (1980). Prior confessions and mock juror verdicts. Journal Of Applied Social Psychology, 10, 133-146.
 Blandon-Gitlin, I., Sperry, K. & Leo, R. (2011). Jurors believe interrogation tactics are not likely to elicit false confessions: Will expert witness testimony inform them otherwise?; Leo, R. & Liu, B. (2009). What do potential jurors know about police interrogation techniques and false confessions? Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 27, 381-399.
 Costanzo, M., Shaked-Schroer, N., & Vinson, K. (2010). Jurors beliefs about police interrogations, false confessions, and expert testimony. Journal of Empirical Legal Studies, 7, 231—247.