The ten-part blockbuster crime documentary released last December by Netflix, Making a Murderer, has enthralled millions of viewers, and even now, many are still viewing the controversial series for the first time. Making a Murderer follows the disconcerting story of a Wisconsin man convicted of murder – Steven Avery. Avery’s 2007 murder conviction, however, is not where the Making a Murderer narrative begins. Avery was found guilty back in 1985 and sent to prison for a sexual assault crime that he did not commit. After eighteen years behind bars, he was vindicated in 2003 when DNA evidence finally identified another suspect. Upon his release, Avery quickly sued local authorities in Manitowoc County for $36 million in compensation for the long miscarriage of justice. In 2005, as that legal claim was pending, Avery was charged with the murder of a woman named Teresa Halbach, and he was convicted for that murder in 2007.

Making a Murderer raises a number of disturbing questions about our law enforcement authorities and our criminal justice system in the United States. Do police officers plant evidence to frame innocent people or to strengthen a case against someone they believe is guilty? Sometimes, the answer is yes. Do cops frighten and confuse innocent and vulnerable persons into making false confessions? Again, sometimes, the answer is yes. False confessions and planted evidence are pervasive problems in the U.S. criminal justice system, although no one really knows precisely how rampant or widespread these problems actually are.

Brendan Dassey, Steven Avery’s nephew and his alleged partner in the murder of Teresa Halbach, was 16 years old when he was arrested by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office. He has an IQ of 70. For hours, Manitowoc County law enforcement officers aggressively interrogated Dassey without a lawyer or even a parent present. Most viewers of Making a Murderer are persuaded – after seeing the actual video of his interrogation – that Brendan Dassey was coerced by the police into making a false confession and incriminating Steven Avery.

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The fierce interrogation of Brendan Dassey is only one of the disturbing issues raised by the creators of Making a Murderer. Crucial forensic evidence that seems to point to Steven Avery’s guilt was also found, somehow, weeks after the original investigators had conducted a number of comprehensive searches of the purported crime scenes. Making a Murderer presents strong evidence that police officers planted their own evidence to ensure Steven Avery’s conviction – and to ensure that his $36 million lawsuit against them disappeared. The only safe bet about Teresa Halbach’s murder is that Brendan Dassey told his interrogators what he believed they wanted to hear. However, the physical evidence in the case doesn’t even match up with the story Dassey provided to police investigators. Since Making a Murderer was released in December, thousands of outraged Netflix viewers have signed petitions demanding retrials for both Dassey and Avery.

HOW OFTEN ARE FALSE CONFESSIONS MADE?

Sadly, however, false confessions take place much more often than you might suspect. According to the Innocence Project, a legal group founded in 1992 to exonerate those wrongly convicted of crimes, more than one out of four people who are wrongly convicted of a crime in the United States but who are later vindicated by DNA evidence offered the police a false confession or made self-incriminating statements after they were arrested. Perhaps one of the most frightening example of what false confessions can lead to happened back in 2001, when three innocent people in Alabama confessed to – and were subsequently convicted and sentenced for – “murdering” a person who never even actually existed.

Victoria Bell Banks, Dianne Bell Tucker, and Medell Banks, Jr., were each convicted and sentenced to serve fifteen years in an Alabama state prison for “murdering” Victoria Bell Banks’ “newborn” baby. The story actually began several months earlier. Victoria Bell Banks had lied about being pregnant in order to bond out of jail in Choctaw County, Alabama. When local officers again bumped into Ms. Banks months later, they asked about her “child,” and she told the police that her pregnancy had ended with a miscarriage. The Alabama law officers suspected that Ms. Banks was lying about the miscarriage, but they did not realize that she had been lying about being pregnant from the very beginning. Instead, police officers conducted a murder investigation. Three phony confessions and three wrongful convictions later, medical evidence eventually exonerated Ms. Banks and her purported “murder accomplices.”

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WHAT ARE YOUR RIGHTS REGARDING INTERROGATIONS?

False confessions almost never jump from someone’s lips for no particular reason. It is extremely rare for anyone to walk into a police station and confess to a crime out of the blue, according to Steven Drizin. He directs the Center for Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Law School in Chicago. Drizin says that most false confessions are the product of overly-aggressive police interrogations that are conducted without attorneys present. That’s one reason why everyone in the United States should clearly understand that you have the right to remain silent when questioned by the police, and you have the right to have an attorney present during any interrogation by police officers. Those two rights are yours at all times, whether or not you have been placed in custody and whether or not your rights have been officially “read” to you.

Never allow the police to question you without having your attorney there the whole time. Exercise your right to remain silent and your right to have your lawyer present for any police interrogation. Be friendly, respectful, and don’t offer the police any “attitude,” but be firm about standing up for your legal rights. Police officers are allowed to deceive and lie to suspects under interrogation in order to obtain confessions. When a suspect provides a confession, whether that confession is true or false, most jurors tend – rightly or wrongly – to consider the confession as compelling evidence of guilt. If you have made a false confession to a crime, or if you have been coerced into making a false confession to a crime, you must have effective, experienced legal representation at once. Contact a good criminal defense lawyer right away, and in the state of Colorado, speak as quickly as possible with an experienced Denver criminal defense attorney.

Making a Murderer also strongly suggests that Wisconsin law enforcement officers in Manitowoc County planted evidence at Steven Avery’s property to ensure Avery’s conviction for Teresa Halbach’s murder. One part of the documentary centers on Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Sgt. Andrew Colborn and Lt. James Lenk, who allegedly discovered a key and a bullet fragment that became critical evidence in Avery’s trial, even though the discoveries occurred long after other investigators had made a number of thorough searches. Avery was sentenced to life without parole for Teresa Halbach’s murder. His several appeals have so far been rejected by Wisconsin courts, but Avery’s new attorneys began work on a new appeal in January.

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HOW PREVALENT IS POLICE MISCONDUCT?

The greater question, of course, is to what extent evidence-planting is practiced by law officers across the nation. No one knows how often evidence is planted by police officers or how many of them are guilty. Professor Philip Stinson, an ex-police officer who now teaches at Bowling Green State University, has collected an extraordinary amount of research about unethical police work and especially about evidence-planting. Still, it’s a murky subject, and Stinson’s data yields little in the way of useful conclusions about evidence-planting. “There’s not much we know about it,” Stinson says.

Nevertheless, evidence-planting is considered a serious crime in all fifty states, and if a law enforcement officer – or if anyone else – plants or tampers with evidence in the state of Colorado, it’s a Class Six felony that is punishable upon conviction by twelve to eighteen months in a state prison and a fine ranging from $1,000 to $100,000. Still, if you are being prosecuted for a crime, and if you believe that evidence was planted to incriminate you, you’ll need your own compelling evidence to back you up. A good criminal defense attorney can help. In New York City, police officers trying to make arrest quotas have admitted to planting drugs on entirely average, innocent New Yorkers, so the shocking reality is that anyone can become a target of police misconduct.

WHERE CAN YOUR TURN IF YOU ARE A VICTIM?

If have been bullied or coerced by police interrogators into making a false confession to any crime, or if you believe that false evidence was planted to frame you for a crime, your situation may look hopeless at the moment, but you must not lose hope. With perseverance, the justice system can sometimes actually render authentic justice. Nevertheless, when the conduct of the police comes into question, you must have trustworthy and seasoned criminal defense representation – an attorney who will fight tenaciously on your behalf. If you are charged with a felony or a misdemeanor in the greater Denver area, discuss your case, your rights, and your options promptly with an experienced Denver criminal defense attorney. If you’ve made a false confession to any crime, or if you are being framed for a crime, legal help is here, but you must take the first step and make the call.

By: Dan Murphy

Denver criminal defense lawyer Daniel M. Murphy provides clients in the Denver area with aggressive and sympathetic legal representation. He graduated from the University of Denver Law School in 1994 and worked as a public defender before starting his own practice in 1996. He has defended clients accused of the most difficult criminal and alcohol-related charges. He also serves as a Moot Court Judge for Denver-area law students who rely on his mentorship.