According to The Sentencing Project, a group dedicated to research and advocacy within the U.S. criminal justice system, the United States has the largest incarceration total in the world at 2.2 million people. The prevalence of intellectual disability among prisoners is estimated between 4% and 10%1 with the prevalence of learning disabilities much higher at 50% 2. These two statistics beg the question of why? Why are there 1.1 million people with learning disabilities currently incarcerated? Could these crimes have been prevented through the provision of appropriate services? Did these prisoners really commit the crimes they were convicted of? Or were they manipulated and coerced by investigators looking to solve a case?

Brendan Dassey being interrogated by police

Brendan Dassey being interrogated by police
Photo Credit: Netflix – Jesse Singal

This issue has recently been brought to the public’s attention through the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. Steven Avery, the star of the series, was wrongfully convicted by police in 1985 and was again targeted in 2005 due to his criminal past and possible intellectual disability. Even more chilling is the manipulation of Avery’s nephew, Brendan, to falsely confess his involvement in a murder. Brendon was 17-years-old at the time and was noted to have a borderline IQ of 70. During the documentary he was referred to by family members as “slow” or “stupid.”

This minor was interrogated by police without a parent or defense lawyer present. Pieces of the recorded interrogation were included in the documentary, where investigators are blatantly coercing Brendan into confessing personal involvement in the rape and murder of a young female. Brendan clearly does not realize what is happening as he makes statements with a rising inflection, indicative of a question. He is trying to please the investigators by telling them what they want to hear. These trained professionals take advantage of Brendan by putting ideas into his head and pushing him until he “guesses” and thus confesses to committing various acts. After the interrogation is over and the police have their confession, they casually ask Brendan if he would like something to eat or drink. They tell him that he is going to be arrested and he replies, “So could I call my girlfriend and tell her that I couldn’t come today?” Brendan clearly does not understand his situation and what he has just done. Here is part of the transcript of a conversation he had with his mom after the confession.

BRENDAN: What’d happen if he says something his story’s different? Wh-he says he, he admits to doing it?

BARB JANDA (mom): What do you mean?

BRENDAN: Like if his story’s like different, like I never did nothin’ or something

BARB JANDA: Did you? Huh?

BRENDAN: Not really.

BARB JANDA: What do you mean not really?

BRENDAN: They got to my head.3

Brendan Dassey is now serving a life sentence for rape and murder. Unfortunately, this is only one incidence displaying the abuse of a juvenile by the criminal justice system. People with intellectual and learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable to manipulation and abuse in all aspects of life, especially within our current criminal justice system. Injustice for this population is real and is not going anywhere unless people in these positions of power become educated.

The Arc has released a list of common responses that people with intellectual disabilities may have when suspected or being interrogated for a crime.

As suspects, individuals may:

  • not want their disability to be recognized (and try to cover it up)
  • not understand their rights but pretend to understand
  • not understand commands, instructions, etc.
  • be overwhelmed by police presence
  • act upset at being detained and/or try to run away
  • say what they think officers want to hear
  • have difficulty describing facts or details of offense
  • be the first to leave the scene of the crime, and the first to get caught
  • be confused about who is responsible for the crime and “confess” even though innocent”1

Anyone in law enforcement, especially those with interrogative positions, should be trained on how to properly interview someone with an intellectual disability. Those being interrogated should also have multiple avenues of support with them during the process to prevent these sort of abusive situations. Advocacy and accommodations are key for these individuals in order to prevent future cases like that of Brendan Dassey.


  1. Davis, L. A. (2009, August). People with Intellectual Disability in the Criminal Justice System: Victims & Suspects. Retrieved March 14, 2016, from
  2. Cortiella, C., & Horowitz, S. H. (2014). The state of learning disabilities: Facts, trends and emerging issues. New York: National Center for Learning Disabilities.
  3. Fassbender, T. & Wiegert, M. (Interviewers) & Dassey, B. (Interviewee). (2006) [Interview Transcript]. Retrieved from