APA Disappointed That SCOTUS Declines to Hear Dassey Case

Closes door to reconsidering juveniles’ susceptibility to false confessions

WASHINGTON — The American Psychological Association expressed disappointment that the U.S. Supreme Court decided against hearing the case of Dassey v. Dittman, which focused on the susceptibility of juveniles and people of limited mental capacity to make false confessions.

“It is unfortunate that the court opted against hearing this case, which provided an avenue to examine the reasons why some people admit to crimes they did not commit,” said APA President Jessica Henderson Daniel, PhD. “This case raised issues where psychological science has much to say. The American Psychological Association will continue to look for opportunities to apply psychological research to protecting juveniles and those with limited mental capacity who wind up in the penal system.” 

The case centered on Brendan Dassey, subject of the Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” who asserted that he was coerced into falsely confessing to a murder that occurred at his uncle’s auto repair facility in Wisconsin. During several interrogations, Dassey, then 16 and whose tested IQ was below average, gave conflicting statements about many aspects of what occurred on the date of the murder. Police interrogators used tactics such as deception, promises of leniency and repeated suggestion of key facts about the crime. Ultimately, Dassey confessed to raping and murdering the victim and then asked if he would be able to get back to school in time for an afternoon class in which he had a project due. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime.

“Because of the importance of the issues raised in Dassey, APA took the unusual step of filing an amicus brief (PDF, 497KB) urging the court to grant certiorari and hear this case,” Daniel said. “We are disappointed that the court has bypassed the opportunity to examine three areas where psychological research could be most helpful to law enforcement and the judiciary: the risk factors for false confessions, the susceptibility of juveniles and the impact of intellectual disabilities on people’s participation in police interrogations.”

APA has filed seven amicus briefs in state supreme courts on the topic of risk factors for false confessions, several of which have been cited in precedent-setting decisions. APA has filed three amicus briefs regarding juvenile characteristics in the Supreme Court beginning with the landmark case, Roper v. Simmons, which declared unconstitutional the juvenile death penalty. APA has also filed a number of briefs regarding intellectual disabilities in the Supreme Court with notable results. APA’s brief in Atkins v. Virginia, which was instrumental in the court’s decision to strike down the death penalty for those with intellectual disabilities, was followed by several briefs regarding how to diagnose intellectual disabilities. APA’s briefs were cited in subsequent pertinent decisions — most notably Hall v. Florida and Moore v. Texas.

The American Psychological Association, in Washington, D.C., is the largest scientific and professional organization representing psychology in the United States. APA's membership includes nearly 115,700 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people's lives.