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False confession expert in 'Making a Murderer' sees parallels with Moorhead murder case

Clarence Burcham gets a hug from his sister, Deborah Burcham, after being released in June 2011 from the Clay County Jail in Moorhead, Minn. Jurors a few days before had acquitted the 46-year-old Burcham of Center, N.D., on charges of first- and second-degree murder in the 1993 death of Sharon Stafford. Michael Vosburg / The Forum

MOORHEAD – Clarence Burcham just wanted to go on his family camping trip.

He thought if he told police what they wanted to hear, they would let him.

So after a pair of interrogations lasting more than six hours in 2009, Burcham confessed to the 1993 rape and strangling of Sharon Stafford, a Moorhead prostitute and his next-door neighbor.

It's a plotline that might sound familiar to viewers of the highly publicized Netflix documentary series "Making a Murderer," which considers whether then-16-year-old Brendan Dassey falsely confessed to the gruesome 2005 murder of photographer Teresa Halbach.

Related: Reporters who covered 'Making a Murderer' trial say it stayed with them

Lawrence White, a psychology professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin, was hired as a false confessions expert in both cases, and said he sees several parallels.

Of course, there's at least one crucial difference.

Burcham was found not guilty. Dassey was convicted.

Vulnerable suspects

Burcham and Dassey both had low IQs, of about 70 or below.

"That's an important similarity between the two cases because we know from studies that low intelligence individuals are at risk for giving false confessions," White said.

People of low intelligence are more easily induced into confessing and less aware of the consequences, he said. That's why both Dassey and Burcham thought they could return to their usual lives afterward.

After he confessed to helping his uncle rape and kill the photographer, Dassey asked police if he could go back to school to make his 1:30 class; amid a similar admission, Burcham asked if he could go on a family camping trip.

"To me, that's pretty clear evidence that they don't really understand what's going on here," White said. The men maybe thought, " 'I'm not going to go to prison for this, because I'm innocent. It'll all get straightened out.' And they're very naive to think that."

Burcham was older than Dassey—he was in his 40s when he confessed—but both were vulnerable and unassisted by a lawyer or family member, White said. "And then you combine that vulnerability ... with really skilled interrogators."

Powerful interrogation

Police used the Reid technique when interrogating both Dassey and Burcham, a method that White said is "so psychologically powerful" it can convince innocent people to falsely confess.

The technique boils down to confronting the suspect ("we know you did it, just tell us why"), minimizing the seriousness of the offense and persistent questioning, White said.

"When you watch these interrogations and you see the whole thing beginning to end—three, four, five hours long—you just can see how these people either get confused, or they get worn down, and they just are feeling kind of helpless," White said. "They're led to believe that confessing is going to be the best thing they can do."

White estimates he's watched 40 to 50 videos of Reid-method interrogations, which are typically done only after an investigation indicates the suspect's involvement.

"They tell you at the very beginning, don't use it unless you're sure the guy is guilty," said Tracy Eichhorn-Hicks, the attorney who defended Burcham. "Don't use it on children, don't use it on people who are mentally impaired, don't use it on people who are intoxicated. It's a form of coercion to get people to confess."

When they ultimately confessed, neither Burcham nor Dassey demonstrated so-called "guilty knowledge," or facts known only to the perpetrator and police, White said in an email. Rather, they regurgitated facts that police "inadvertently 'fed' ... to the suspects."

Significant difference

One major difference between Burcham's and Dassey's cases is that White didn't testify in Dassey's trial. In fact, no false confessions experts did.

"That doesn't mean that Dassey's jury would have acquitted him if an expert had testified. I mean, we'll never know," White said. "But it is, I think, a potentially significant difference between the two cases."

Eichhorn-Hicks believes White made the difference for his client, though he acknowledged that the result of Burcham's trial, which ended in 2011, was unique.

"Frankly, I don't know of any other case where someone has made a full confession and that confession has stayed in evidence and they have been exonerated," he said.

Late last year, Dassey's lawyers filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus, which aims to prompt a federal judge to determine whether his arrest and conviction were legal.

The lawyers argue his rights were violated due to ineffective assistance of counsel and an involuntary confession.

Grace Lyden
Grace Lyden is the higher education reporter for The Forum. Previously, she interned at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, after graduating from the Missouri School of Journalism in 2014. She welcomes story ideas via email or phone. Have a comment to share about a story? Letters to the editor should include author’s name, address and phone number. Generally, letters should be no longer than 250 words. All letters are subject to editing. Send to letters@forumcomm.com.
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