How Speech, Language and Communication difficulties “Made a Murderer”

An opinion piece by a Senior Speech and Language Therapist at Mable Therapy.

I’m sure I am not the only person who is heartbroken by the plight of Brendan Dassey on Netflix’s documentary series ‘Making a Murderer’. Watching season 2 of the Netflix documentary this week inspired me to write this blog, which I hope shows how speech, language and communication difficulties are directly linked to Brendan being imprisoned.

Brendan’s Capacity for Understanding

In amongst the rest of the injustice, what devastated me the most was hearing about the 3 minor infractions Brendan has received whilst being in prison. In a prison full of drugs and gangs, Brendan has only been in trouble for:

  1. Having an extra packet of soup
  2. Having sellotape on his board game
  3. Keeping score of his game on the back of a prison form.

It is clear that his learning disabilities affect him hugely, although he is now 29 years old, he is much more like a young child, relying on phone calls with his Mother and playing board games to pass the time.

Brendan was previously assessed as having an IQ of 73 (and a verbal IQ of 69). The average person has an IQ of 100, and 70 is usually considered as being the cut off for an intellectual disability. Although the IQ test shows that Brendan does have a learning disability, as a speech and language therapist I would argue his communication scores would equate to even lower than this.

As a 16-year-old at the time of his Police interview, Brendan was a child taking ‘special education’ classes; described as being quiet, having difficulties socially and enjoyed watching wrestling and playing computer games. Prior to the murder of Teresa Halbach, Brendan had no experience of the criminal justice system. 

The Speech & Language Assessment

Because of his learning disabilities, he was seen for Speech and Language assessments every 3 years and his last school report (when he was 15 years 11 months old) is available hereThis assessment is an interesting read because it shows exactly why Brendan was so vulnerable to the police interviewers. The area he has the most difficulties with is his working memory – in fact, in an assessment where all he has to do is recite back a string of numbers said to him by his assessor – he scored an age equivalent of 5 years 3 months.

During the infamous police interview, Brendan changed his story several times and kept responding ‘I don’t know’ to questions. The reason he did this is because he couldn’t remember what he said. Even if it was a few minutes prior, he was actually completely unaware of something he had just told the interviewers. It is clear when watching the tape of his ‘confession’, Brendan is trying to say what he thinks the interviewers want him to say, but he is struggling to do this because he can’t work out what he ‘should’ be saying.

To break down the conclusion of Brendan’s report, he has difficulties in almost every area of speech, language and communication. Not only is his understanding of what people say to him impaired, but so is his ability to express himself, his memory and ability to form sentences. He also has a limited range of vocabulary and has difficulties with abstract language (for example if someone told him to ‘break a leg’), he may take this literally.

One particular area that was examined in detail is Brendan’s pragmatic language abilities. Pragmatic language refers to the social language skills we use every day. These include what we say, how we say it, our body language and whether it is appropriate to the given situation. For example, it is understanding that when someone is looking bored and at their watch in a conversation they may want to leave. This was assessed by asking 4 of his teachers to fill out a ‘pragmatic profile’. To be age appropriate Brendan would need to score over 142, one of his teachers rated him as low as 22. This is hugely important, as some of these factors made him look guilty.

The Police Interview & Signs of Guilt

Struggles to Make Eye Contact

Brendan particularly struggles with making eye contact, this is discussed in the documentary but is also mentioned as part of his speech and language report.

What is one thing everyone knows about how to tell when people are lying?

They can’t make eye contact. 

Asking for clarification

The second area which was named as ‘a significant difficulty’ for Brendan is his ability to ask for clarification if he is confused or if the situation is unclear. Essentially, this means that Brendan does not ask for help if he isn’t sure. In my experience, children with difficulties in this area will nod along, or sit and wait for someone to offer them help rather than ask for it. We know he was definitely confused during his police interview, so he attempts to nod along and try to struggle through it, relying on help from the police interviewers, who were more than happy to oblige him with what would be good to say in this situation.

Using and interpreting body language and tone of voice.

Brendan is listed as having difficulty with the understanding of and using appropriate facial cues, body language, voice intonation and tone of voice. This means that Brendan would not be able to see ‘clues’ in the police’s body language and tone of voice which people without an impairment would pick up on, and he also may have used inappropriate facial expression and tone of voice himself, which again could make him look guilty, particularly at trial.

Receptive Vocabulary

We know that Brendan has difficulties understanding what people say to him, and he also has a limited receptive vocabulary. If we consider this in the context of questions being asked of him, It creates a very complicated picture.

Brendan is asked questions using negative statements, such as ‘You didn’t do that did you?’, these questions are more difficult to comprehend as well as answer. Should he say ‘yes’, as this means he did do that, or ‘yes’ in agreement that he didn’t? He is also asked questions in which he can only answer ‘yes’ or guess, leading him to implicate himself. For example, the Police say ‘what did you do to her?’ Brendan says ‘I don’t know’, and the Police say ‘come on, yes you do, what did you do?’ Brendan then guesses ‘cut her hair?’ leading to a confession of which there is no scientific evidence to back it up. Brendan later tells his Mother that he was guessing the answers, like he guesses the answers to his homework.

The police interviewers use vocabulary such as ‘potentially’ and ‘reviewed’, Brendan is likely to have no idea what these words mean. In fact, there is a scene in the documentary where Brendan is on the phone to his Mother and asks her what ‘inconsistent’ means. She is unable to tell him, as she doesn’t know herself.

Word finding & expressive language delay

The Police Interviewers are constantly asking Brendan to confirm times and say when things happened, however a lot of children with difficulties like Brendan’s find time concepts very difficult to understand. Throughout the whole police interview, Brendan’s responses are barely longer than a few words and usually filled with ‘filler’ words such as ‘erm’, ‘thing’, ‘like’, suggesting he has word finding difficulties and a severe expressive language delay. Due to Brendan’s pragmatic difficulties, he is likely to believe what he is told by an adult without question, so when the police interviewers say ‘We already know what happened, we know what you did’ Brendan starts to believe that he must have done something.

Throughout the whole process, Brendan was set up to fail. He never received a fair trial, nor was he able to explain himself, understand his rights or comprehend the implications of what he was saying. After ‘confessing’ to a murder and mutilating a corpse, Brendan thought he would get home in time to watch Wrestlemania.

I truly hope that Brendan will get out of prison sooner rather than later, but the sad fact is that Brendan is just one of many children with speech and language needs who has been caught up in a vicious cycle, whose vulnerabilities make them likely to end up to become young offenders or go to prison. A recent statistic suggests that 80% of adult prisoners have speech, language and communication needs. That figure is shocking.

The criminal justice system in this instance has shown it is not fit for purpose when it comes to people with learning and speech and language disabilities.

How Speech and Language Therapy can prevent this

Think about the child, like Brendan, who wants to please. They lack assertiveness or expressive language abilities to say no. They want to fit in and they want to have friends, but have always lacked the social skills to make them. The child with ADHD and associated speech and language difficulties, who does first and thinks later or the child with extreme anxieties who will do whatever it takes to remove themselves from a situation.

It may be too late for Brendan, who has lost 13 years of his life, but what can we do for those other children, can we intercept them before they end up in a criminal justice system?

I believe with the right intervention at crucial stages in a child’s growth it’s entirely possible to re-direct the life of a child. The work needs to start as early as possible, a speech and language assessment is the first port of call, and specific strategies can be given then to help the child to flourish. The majority of children with SEMH (social, emotional and mental health) needs have difficulties with:

  • Vocabulary knowledge, so may need to be specifically taught vocabulary before the start of new topics. (See our vocabulary blog series for information on teaching vocabulary) For particularly vulnerable children, they may need to specifically learn criminal justice vocabulary in order for them to interpret the meaning of police interview questions.
  • The ability to sequence, so putting things in the correct order. This is essential for narrative skills, so being able to tell a story (or explain something to a police interviewer). This can be worked on by asking the child to order everyday sequences, such as making a cup of tea. Put simply, if a child cannot sequence, then they cannot think through their actions.
  • Inferencing. Children are particularly vulnerable if they have difficulties ‘reading between the lines’ and take what people say literally. To work on this, you could use short films and stories, and focus on ‘why’, ‘how’ and prediction questions.
  • Understanding time concepts. This means not only telling the time but concepts such as ‘yesterday’, ‘before’, ‘recently’ etc. Always check their understanding of these terms before using them, and teach them explicitly. Things such as ‘now and next’ boards and visual timetables can be particularly helpful.

If you have any concerns about any of the children you work with or any questions, do not hesitate to get in touch, I am available at alicia@mabletherapy.com.

Alicia Lynch

Alicia Lynch

Specialist Speech and Language Therapist

Alicia is a highly experienced Speech and Language Therapist who specialises in social and communication skills, in pupils in secondary and further education, as well as SEMH in children and adolescents.

73 replies
  1. Lavelle
    Lavelle says:

    Our justice system ranks as the worst in the western world. It is sad for young people with intellectual difficulties as well as race and persons in poverty.

    Reply
  2. Darla Greene
    Darla Greene says:

    You’re speaking my language! As a SLP I know all too well so many of our children with communication disorders do fall into the criminal justice system as a result of their areas of need. Additionally, add to it being a minority. At this current time I’m researching and meeting with law enforcement officers in my state to spread awareness of those like Brendan within the disability community. Thanks for this article, I’ll be following your links to find out more details about your work.

    Reply
      • Darla Greene
        Darla Greene says:

        Hi Lana- I encourage you to do it! I called police departments and inquired to meet with someone that could speak to me about police training or could answer questions about how they respond to those in the community with disabilities (preferably intellectual, communicative or mental illness) . I took along with me some really good data that identifies the concern that exists in regards to how those within the disability community are treated upon encountering police. Please see the link for The ARC National Center on Criminal Justice & Disability NCCJD
        https://www.thearc.org/NCCJD

        I added to the information the benefit of having a communication professionals such as SLPs as part of their training to bring more awareness to the needs of this invisible community that struggle everyday to meet the social expectations of proficient communication.

        Reply
      • Evelyn Thomas
        Evelyn Thomas says:

        My eldest daughter, a special ed teacher with a language and speec credential had a student falsely accused of a crime. English was his second language. Knowing how accomadating special ed students can be, she asked to participate in his trial but was not allowed. He went to jail, then was deported back to original country. His father and brother were both living here.Despair is a light definition of what his father experienced. He must now carry a label for rest of his life.

        Reply
    • meagan lewis
      meagan lewis says:

      Hi darla-

      I would love to hear more about the work you’re doing and what state you’re in. I’m in MA and am just now beginning the exact same work, doing tons of research and trying to figure out how to get started in supporting these kids. Any advice you have would be invaluable!

      Reply
      • Darla Greene
        Darla Greene says:

        Hi Meagan- I’m still learning as well and am driven by parent concern for their teens and young adults with communication disorders or intellectual disabilities who may one day encounter police. I’m in Texas. Here they’ve passed a law recently called SB 30 that requires the schools to teach students how to interact with peace officers. Although students being informed how to engage with officers will add to the education piece, I also believe that training law enforcement how to identify those with communication deficits
        is an invaluable piece that could come from our expertise as Speech-Language Pathologists. The more we express our concerns for the population we serve and the necessity for law enforcement’s collaboration with healthcare professionals , the urgency will become more clear. The ARC has several relevant articles that will help you identify that there is a need. Unfortunately some communities are not aware of the problem. Please see the link below. There is also an article about Brendan. I hope this helps. Please stay in touch as we may share information!

        https://www.thearc.org/NCCJD

        Reply
    • Ilyeh Nahdi
      Ilyeh Nahdi says:

      Hi Darla! I’m a SLT student really interested in the link between communication disorders and youth offenders from minority backgrounds. I would love some more information on work you’re doing because although there is a lot of work out there on the need of early identification of SLCN in early years to reduce the link to the criminal justice system, I feel like there is a definitive gap on the focus of minority ethnic groups. If you have any further information or direction to point me in for this type of research please let me know! Thanks

      Reply
  3. Mary Valantine
    Mary Valantine says:

    Thank you for sharing this article! Where is there justice? Wow! I’ll have to watch the series to get some questions answered about this severely delayed young boy being coerced by policemen.. and confusing him to confess to a murder. Our Communication Disordered kids need help!!!!!

    Reply
  4. Jodie Crandall
    Jodie Crandall says:

    I have two young adult children with significant speech/language/communication differences, a son who has Down Syndrome and a daughter who is autistic. Much of my time is spent figuring out how to let them explore the world and experience a full life – while navigating a very dangerous and ignorant world of neuro-typical people. Most people have a difficult time imagining/acknowledging how anyone can be a full, complete human being – outside of language. Since we think “self” in the world through language – if someone doesn’t use language then the underlying assumption is they aren’t fully human/sentient. Thank you for voicing opposition to that premise – and laying out some of the real-world ways in which difference is used to diminish a human life.

    Reply
    • Laura Kramer
      Laura Kramer says:

      I agree with this. I found everything true as to what you have said with my son. It is so hard to get other people to understand our kids especially if they are not with them 24/7 and they look nirmsl in their eyes.

      Reply
  5. Norm
    Norm says:

    Minor error in article, “Who has lost 18 years of his life” Brendan has been in Jail 13 years. He is now 29 years old and this happened when he was 16.

    Reply
  6. Rita Lucas
    Rita Lucas says:

    Excellent article and insights. As a resident of the state of Wisconsin, it is my hope that our new Governor-elect, Tony Evers, himself an educator, would be encouraged to look into this entire miscarriage of justice. Ms Lynch, if there is any way for Mr Evers to read this, it could certainly help Brendan Dassey, and perhaps even Steven Avery. Thank you so much for this.

    Reply
    • Alicia Lynch
      Alicia Lynch says:

      Hi Rita, great to see people with voting power are reading the article! I would love to help both Steven and Brendan in any way possible.

      Reply
  7. Emily
    Emily says:

    Alicia,
    Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts and link this pop culture TV series to what we do everyday. The series has been very difficult for me to watch because I work with students like Brendan everyday as a SLP at a high school.

    Reply
  8. Cheri Oehler-Terman
    Cheri Oehler-Terman says:

    Just WOW! What would the outcome be if you were a witness for the defense. It’s SO obvious to me he was rail-roaded, and easily, bc of his deficits!

    Reply
  9. Barb
    Barb says:

    I remember watching the police questioning him and bawling. It was really tough to watch and I was sick to my stomach over it. You could see that he had no idea he was being railroaded. I hope your article helps him in some way, and other young adults as well!

    Reply
    • Jodi, PTA
      Jodi, PTA says:

      I have not seen the program but, in addition to your comment, Barb, I am ashamed that the detectives and/or prosecution decided to capitalize on Brendan’s obvious deficits. In our justice system, we should also work, on this end, to educate criminal justice professionals so that taking advantage of suspects in situations like this (he was intentionally “rail-roaded”). Justice and fairness should apply to the victim and the suspect/defendant in determining the appropriate outcomes. Don’t get me wrong, early intervention is always most important. And in that vein, we should be advocates to make sure that the children receive the intervention strategies they need at the correct point of entry into the systems that we, as advocates and clinicians, work in the organizations that provide services to them. Thank you, Alicia, for your compassion and voice. I would like to communicate further with you about similar issues and learn from your experience.

      Reply
      • Alicia Lynch
        Alicia Lynch says:

        Hi Jodi and Barb, thank you for your comments.
        In the original trial, Brendan’s speech and language difficulties were discussed for less than 2 minutes! So hopefully we can raise some awareness of the importance of speech and language when it comes to the criminal justice system. Jodi, feel free to send me an email, the address is at the end of the article!

        Reply
      • Marcia G Roberson
        Marcia G Roberson says:

        I think detectives knew exactly what they were dealing with, and deliberately used Brendans disabilities to their benefit, to accomplish their ultimate goal of convicting Steven.

        Reply
  10. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    Such an interesting read, thank you for sharing your thoughts about this intriguing case. As an SLP who spent some time working at an alternative high school for students with emotional and behavioral disorders (and some with related speech-language services), many of them were in and out of trouble with the law. It hurts my heart to think they may have had worse experiences and/or consequences as a result of not being able to orally defend themselves.

    Reply
  11. Lavenia Raiwalui
    Lavenia Raiwalui says:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this case.I acknowledge your contribution as I relate to your understading of this sad case…a man-child.I have a daughter who is 19 years 6 months old and being diagnosed as having a mind of a 10 year old.The difficulties she went though primary school and having family and friends not being able to understand her has been our struggle over the years.Here in Fiji, this condition is not well understood and there are no special schools to help these children.Thanks for highlighting this issue.

    Reply
  12. Gianna
    Gianna says:

    Watching this documentary broke my heart because I saw the same things you mention. I was actually in graduate school becoming an SLP when I watched it. I went to class the next day and discussed it with my classmates because of how obvious it was this poor kid was struggling so much during his interrogation. It truly breaks my heart.

    Reply
    • Alicia Lynch
      Alicia Lynch says:

      Hi Gianna, I know, I can’t watch it again as it upsets me too much! Hopefully the public profile the documentary has given Brendan has raised awareness so it never happens again!

      Reply
  13. Laura
    Laura says:

    This is an amazing article. My heart breaks for Brendan. Would you consider mailing this article to the new Governor of Wisconsin Tony Evers and the new Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul? They have the power to help free Brendan. There are an army of supporters behind him and we have to be his voice! I am mailing letters to them both today. Your insights are incredible and we have to fight for Brendan. This is not right!

    Reply
  14. Mindy
    Mindy says:

    Great article, thank you. I work with youth with disabilities and behavior challenges and we talk about how the “rest of the world” doesn’t care about IEPs and test scores. Sad reminder.

    Reply
    • Jodi, PTA
      Jodi, PTA says:

      Mindy, I do care about the IEP! The IEP serves so many purposes. Most importantly, it sets aside for a team to determine what the students need while they are part of the educational system in their developmental years. However, the document does carry weight so much farther than that and as stated and brought out in this blog, it should be granted more importance. But this too, will start with educational professionals that place information in it. We must make sure that we are advocates for the children and not just trying to expedite the process to get the job done and move on with our lives. Team decisions should be intentional, pertinent, useful, functional, interventive, projective. And for this, many of the educational professionals and related service providers should also receive training in the importance of how much further the IEP goes beyond the everyday class.

      Reply
  15. Tanya Serry
    Tanya Serry says:

    What a fantastic article. I am a speech pathology lecturer in Melbourne Australia and will be using thIs somehow in my teaching 👏🏼👏🏼

    Reply
  16. Georgie
    Georgie says:

    Fantastic article my heart breaks for poor Brendan! To me this screams Autism, did he ever get assessed for this, do you know?

    Reply
    • Alicia Lynch
      Alicia Lynch says:

      HI Georgie, thank you and I know, heart broken is definitely the correct term for me too. I am not aware of any autism assessments, but I would imagine since he had speech and language assessments this would have been considered!

      Reply
  17. Michelle Nella
    Michelle Nella says:

    Great article thank you. I’m a slp from Toronto, Ontario Canada. In the province of Ontario we have a communication intermediary group, it’s called CDAC-Communication Disabilities Access Canada. Trained slps can act as intermediaries in court cases. This would include individuals like Brendan, along with people who have suffered a stroke and are aphasic, individuals with CP, etc. Barbara Collier started this. She would be an excellent resource to help you.
    Thanks, Michelle

    Reply
    • Alicia Lynch
      Alicia Lynch says:

      Hi Michelle thanks for that! If only more countries could start to realise the impact of speech, language and communication needs within criminal justice and do something similar

      Reply
  18. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I am SO glad to have run across this article. As a pediatric OT for children with hearing loss, I see these delays all the time. I had to stop watching Making a Murderer in the first season because I was so distraught with Brendan’s police interview. I’m so glad to know there are other people who recognize this awful injustice.

    Reply
    • Alicia Lynch
      Alicia Lynch says:

      Hi Sarah, I know I felt so angry after every episode! We have had only positive comments so there seems to be a huge amount of people who appreciate how terrible this situation is!

      Reply
  19. Pj
    Pj says:

    Great article and insights. Two thoughts; 1). I only wish that someone with your expertise had testified at ANY of Brendan’s trials and explained these things as clearly and concisely as you have and 2). Since the Supreme Court has directed that extra care should be taken with juveniles and intellectually disadvantaged people…why in the world isn’t law enforcement required to be aware of this type of info before they question such a person?

    Reply
    • Alicia Lynch
      Alicia Lynch says:

      Hi PJ thank you. Both your points are excellent, I believe in Brendan’s initial trial there was a witness called to discuss his speech and language needs but this was only for a round a minute before it was dismissed… we need to raise more awareness around the impact of speech and language needs in the criminal justice system. Secondly, you are absolutely correct, more training needs to be given in this area, and we need police officers who are specifically trained to deal with this kind of situation, much like there are police officers specifically trained to interview children etc.

      Reply
  20. MG
    MG says:

    Our role as SLPs in our community is very important. I hope this helps to raise awareness about the impact of DLD in someone’s life. A language disorder is a disorder that doesn’t go away. With therapy, the person with DLD might improve some aspects of language,but other aspects of language and communication will remain vulnerable.

    Reply
  21. Suzanne Martin
    Suzanne Martin says:

    Great article! This is such a frustrating situation! 18 years ago (in 2000) I wrote my dissertation on speech and language difficulties amongst young offenders as I was inspired by the already detailed work in this area of Professor Karen Bryan. I now work in a different area of SLT but it really saddens me to think that the evidence base has been growing for such a long time and yet there stills seems so much to do in raising awareness of the impact of speech and language difficulties.

    Reply
    • Alicia Lynch
      Alicia Lynch says:

      Hi Suzanne, wow ahead of your time there! Yes there is still so much to be done, hopefully Brendan’s case can raise some awareness of other children with similar difficulties

      Reply
  22. Faith
    Faith says:

    From what I’ve studied, all if his communication problems point straight to Aspergers which is now considered on the autism spectrum.

    Reply
    • Sarah Walters
      Sarah Walters says:

      Not necessarily. Lots of people are actually misdiagnosed as having autism when it’s actually a language disorder.

      Besides, Asperger’s is by definition autism with strong verbal communication – which is this man’s weakness. Definitely can’t be an Aspie.

      Reply
  23. Jade Romain
    Jade Romain says:

    Thank you for sharing this reality. Im a SLP working in the secondary setting but after work I volunteer in a juvenile facility and an adult men’s prison. The young men and adults consistently express their struggles with communication. Many had IEPs when they were younger but the majority have undetected language disorders. They share their concerns with receptive and expressive language, as well as their fear with communication with individuals on the outside…especially if theyve been incarcerated for a significant amount of time. Then theyre released back into society and have inadequate communication skills, they end right back in prison. But the concern comes with prisons understanding and valuing the role of a SLP and truly seeing us as an individual who can assist with rehabilitation in a correctional setting

    Reply
  24. Kendall
    Kendall says:

    I appreciate this article so much! I remember watching the end of season 1 thinking, “this is so wrong.” This article is strongly crafted and supported with the evaluation report.

    Reply
  25. Kayla Bailey
    Kayla Bailey says:

    Is there a citation for “80% of adult prisoners have speech, language and communication needs.”
    I’m just curious because I’ve never heard of this.

    Thanks in advance.

    Reply
    • Jade Romain
      Jade Romain says:

      Prevalence figures of communication problems in the delinquent popu
      lation range from 24% to 84% (Cozad & Rousey, 1966; Falconer & Cochran, 1989; Taylor, 1969). Moreover, recent studies suggest male (Davis, Sanger, & Morris-Friehe, 1991) and female delinquents (Sanger, Hux, & Belau, 1997) with no previous identification of learning or language problems qualify as potential candidates for language intervention.

      Here’s one indirect citation. But look up research articles by Dixie Sanger. You’ll find many.

      Reply
  26. JH
    JH says:

    First of all, thank you for writing this piece. Such an important step in beginning the conversation with professionals in the law enforcement/judicial system. I hope this opens up a dialogue where SLPs can help law enforcement better understand how to engage with & maintain the rights of students with disabilities.

    Also, it is further evidence that Speech/Language services continue to be necessary even in the older grades. Districts must continue to provide adequate SLP staffing for our high schoolers. Over 100 students on a caseload is not acceptable in my opinion. My heart breaks for students lost in the system due to a disability, either known or unknown.

    Reply
  27. Juan Sanchez
    Juan Sanchez says:

    Hi. Having watched both series your explanations make so much sense and leave me more angry at how the American court system allowed this poor young man to be convicted. Thank you for a most informative article

    Reply

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