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Wisconsin’s juvenile interrogation practices under fire

MADISON (WKOW) – There’s pressure on Wisconsin leaders to consider changing the way juvenile suspects are interrogated.

Thousands signed an online petition for change after becoming concerned with the interrogation practices used in 2005 on teenage killer Brendan Dassey.

Portions of Dassey’s interrogation in connection with the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach was widely seen in the Netflix presentation Making a Murderer.

Dassey was questioned without the presence of an attorney or parent and urged by interrogators to agree with damaging evidence.

A federal court magistrate set aside Dassey’s conviction over the interrogation tactics and members of a federal appeals court agreed, but the full appellate court found the questioning legal and upheld Dassey’s conviction.

The U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene in the case.

“We believed that an extraordinary travesty of justice occurred in that case,” says attorney Marsha Levick of the Philadelphia-based Juvenile Law Center.

Current Calumet County Sheriff Mark Wiegert was one of two investigators who interrogated Dassey.

“As far as discussing anything with the Dassey case, I would not be able to do that,”  Wiegert tells 27 News.

The online petition calls for requiring an attorney be present during any juvenile interrogation.

Sun Prairie Educational Resource Officer (ERO) Tommy Foy – also a board member of the Wisconsin Juvenile Officers Association – tells 27 News his department’s practice is to have a parent with a child during questioning unless the two are in conflict in connection with the case being investigated.

“We offer the parent to be there for that extra guidance for that juvenile,” Foy says.

“We also, unfortunately, know of many situations where parents, I think not surprisingly, tell their children to tell the truth,” Levick says.  When 27 News pressed Levick about why truthful responses would not be a good outcome, she said there’s more nuance to an interrogation and parents “…don’t appreciate the consequences or the pitfalls that children can face during the course of an interrogation.”

“We also know that there are…cases around the country where children have falsely confessed,” she says.

Sun Prairie Sergeant Ryan Cox supervises the department’s EROs and says he feels Wisconsin’s legal framework for juvenile interrogations works.

“I think the current landscape is appropriate and professional,” Cox tells 27 News.

Cox says the bulk of his department’s juvenile interrogations take place either in a school setting, or a conference-type room.  He says if juvenile suspects are in custody, they are questioned in a more secure room, to include having one hand secured by a handcuff to a chair in the room.

Cox acknowledges interrogators are allowed to present false claims to juvenile interview subjects to try to elicit information and confessions.

“Typically we would use that as a last resort,” Cox says.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Tuesday during a Dane County Sheriff’s homicide investigation, two child witnesses – ages five and six – were questioned without the presence of a parent or a family member.

Foy says he prepares for the possibility of carrying out juvenile interrogations in his assigned school’s community by building relationships with teenage school children.

“And they trust you,” Foy says.  “Just being honest about the situation.”

“What we supervise our officers to make sure they do is make sure the juvenile offender understands what their right are,” Cox says.

Absent an attorney for the child participating in an interrogation, Levick is skeptical.

“For children and teenagers, they don’t have that same awareness or familiarity or appropriate level of comprehension,” she says.

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul has yet to respond to requests for comment on the law and practices in connection to juvenile interrogations in the state.

The call for change in interrogation rules has so far failed to persuade state lawmakers to prioritize it.  Wisconsin does require all juvenile interrogations to be recorded.

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Tony Galli

Reporter, WKOW

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