When all seemed hopeless for imprisoned teen Brendan Dassey toward the end of the Netflix docu-series Making a Murderer, wrongful conviction lawyer Laura Nirider, 34, stepped in to help. She is co-director of Northwestern University's Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY) and believes that Brendan's confession to aiding his uncle Steven Avery in the murder of Teresa Halbach was elicited wrongfully and is working to help free him. Here, she opens up on what it's like to do her job and why she was drawn to Brendan's case.
What kind of preparation do you do before you get to work, so you’re on the ball when you arrive? In the mornings I play with my older son [he’s three], and I feed the baby [seven weeks old]. I make sure they’re happy, they’ve had their breakfast and they’re ready for their day. It’s also important for me to connect with my family because it helps me remember that the clients I’m serving have their own families who need me to fight for them as hard as I possibly can. It’s a reminder of what’s important.
What’s the first thing you do when you get to work? I check the news. If we hear about a case that involves a false confession or a situation that looks a little fishy, like Brendan Dassey’s case [shown in Making a Murderer], we want to get involved.
You are also the co-director of Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY). What is the mood like there? The attorneys who work there are incredibly compassionate, intelligent people who are always willing to put their clients before them, which is truly rare, I think. In addition to that, we’re also professors at a law school, so we’re surrounded by students who transform from people who are just learning about these issues for the first time to people who are able to take on the entire criminal justice system themselves. It’s an inspiring thing to watch.
What draws you to cases like Brendan Dassey’s, where someone has been potentially wrongfully convicted? I think it’s the same thing that is drawing in millions of people around the country to watch Making a Murderer. Once you hear these stories, you can’t stop thinking about them. Anyone who watches [Brendan’s] interrogation, you just want to jump into the screen and get between that child and the interrogators. As a lawyer, I’m lucky enough to do that. [Nirider specializes in cases involving false confession from a youth].
Laura appears in the hit Netflix docu-series Making a Murderer. Photo: © Netflix
Why are so many teens confessing to crimes that they may not have committed? Police around the country are trained in how to interrogate people, but the methods they’re trained to use are designed for seasoned adult criminals, not for 16-year-olds and certainly not for 16-year-olds who may have mental limitations [like Brendan Dassey]. These tactics steamroll kids and you have this problem of teenagers in the interrogation room who just decide they need to say whatever the officer wants them to say, and they think they’re going to get to go home. You see it over and over in so many cases, exactly what happened to Brendan. Kids just don’t understand what they’re getting into when they give up these statements.
As viewers saw in Making a Murderer, trying to prove someone’s innocence can be frustrating. How do you stay motivated? Talking to your clients. Anytime I feel frustrated, I think “this is nothing because at 5 p.m., I get to go home to my family and I get to do all those things that people are denied in prison.” There’s nothing better to keep you going than remembering there’s someone suffering who shouldn’t be.
What’s the best career advice you’ve ever received? To be strategic. Think about what you need to do to advance to the next level, who you need to get in front of, and what you need to do to achieve your goals. But I think it’s being [both] strategic and entrepreneurial. So if there isn’t an organization out there that’s doing what you want to do, see what you can do to bring that about.