I’ve finally finished the documentary Making a Murderer and want to express my thoughts. Be warned: there are spoilers.

Obviously, the big question the film asks is if the police framed Stephen Avery for murder, just like they framed him for rape all those years ago. I’m pretty convinced they did, but the thing I keep coming back to is: who killed Theresa in order to frame him? Would the police go that far? Did they find her dead and decide to work with what they had instead of finding the real killer? I had a horrible vision today that maybe she died of natural causes on the road, maybe a brain aneurysm, and the cops found her body and decided to use the fact that she’d been on the Avery property that day to their advantage. But could they have really coordinated so quickly? How far did the conspiracy reach?

I know these are the big questions of the film, but I don’t really want to spend much time talking about them. Because I think the real tragedy is the conviction of Brendan Dassey. I’ve worked with students who face challenges to learning much like Brendan’s (from what I can see based on the movie) and watching those officers and the defense investigator take advantage of him was just absolutely sickening.

The scene that made me openly weep can be viewed here. This is where Brendan’s own defense attorney unleashes his investigator to elicit a confession from Brendan so he can plead guilty. The confession could then be used to attack Stephen Avery and get him convicted. Brendan’s own attorney was conspiring against him and his family. This in and of itself is shocking, but the way the investigator got him to confess was what made me so outraged and sick.

You see, the investigator acted like he was Brendan’s teacher, and Brendan was a student who wouldn’t do his assignment. 

He gives Brendan what is essentially a worksheet with questions about the alleged crime, and tells him to fill it out. Then, when he doesn’t get the “answers” he wants, the investigator makes Brendan re-do it, all the while guilting and badgering him about not doing it correctly.

His language, terminology, and demeanor reeked of a frustrated teacher trying to force a student into compliance. It’s so easy, kid. Just do the work. Just do the stupid worksheet and let us move on with our lives. Can’t you even try? How could someone be this slow?

Teachers with the best of intentions (myself included) can skirt into this territory, especially with kids that they view as capable but just not trying. Brendan appears like he can pass for shy and reluctant, but relatively normal at a first glance. He was, according to the documentary, in some regular education classes. I imagine that many of his educators were at times frustrated with him for not getting it, and saw his silence as lack of trying, not as a lack of understanding and being too afraid to ask for help.

See, I’ve taught this type of kid before. I know this survival tactic. “If I don’t do the assignment long enough, eventually they’ll stop asking me to do it. If I’m passive, they might tell me the answer. If I guess, maybe, just maybe, I’ll get the right answer, and we can just be done. I just want to be done. I want them to leave me alone so I don’t feel stupid, so I can do what I want instead of this. Please God, let it be over soon.”

At one point in the documentary, when Brendan is explaining to his mother why he confessed, she asks him, “How did you know all that stuff?” He replies, “I just guessed. That’s what I do on my homework.”

That’s what I do on my homework.

Let’s get down to it. The educational system molded Brendan, and taught him to rely on the survival tactics of passive resistance, guessing, and doing whatever it takes to get past the discomfort of an assignment that is too difficult or an authority figure that is upset with him. He just wanted the interview to be over. Hell, he thought he was going to get to go home when it was done and he had complied with what the authority figures wanted. And why not? He’d always gotten to go home before when he gave his teachers and administrators what they wanted.

As teachers, we need to be very careful with how we shape kids like Brendan, students who are at risk due to learning disabilities and disenfranchised by socioeconomic status. A time might come when someone in authority will take advantage of them. We must teach our students, regardless of their academic ability, to know their rights. And we need to prevent shaping them into people who can’t defend themselves against corrupt authority.

Unfortunately, it’s too late for Brendan. He’ll be in prison until 2046.

 

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