Interview with Dr. Laura Nirider*
Student Section Editors
Maria Aparcero, Student President | Fordham University, USA
Ilvy Goossens, Past Student President | Simon Fraser University, Canada
Laura Dellazizzo, Student Secretary | Université de Montréal, Canada
Laura Nirider is a Clinical Associate Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago. Nirider represents individuals who were believed to be wrongfully convicted of crimes when they were children or teenagers. Her clients have included Brendan Dassey, whose case was profiled in the Netflix Global series Making a Murderer, and Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three, whose case was profiled in the documentary ‘West of Memphis’. In addition to her courtroom work, Nirider publishes on interrogations and post-conviction relief. In partnership with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, she has co-authored one of the only existing juvenile interrogation protocols. She is also a frequent presenter on interrogations at defender and law enforcement training conferences around the country and has been featured in film and television programs on interrogations. Recently, she co-authored an amicus curiae brief that was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in J.D.B. v. North Carolina for the proposition that the risk of false confession is "all the more troubling...and all the more acute...when the subject of custodial interrogation is a juvenile.”
Q: Could you tell us about your educational background and how you became involved with false confessions involving youth/children? Were there pivotal moments in your career?
Dr. Nirider: I graduated from law school 11 years ago – but like many of today’s law students, I felt intense pressure during school to become a business lawyer in order to earn enough money to repay the cost of my legal education. Bowing to those pressures, I agreed during my second year of law school to join a large commercial law firm after graduation. My heart, though, was never in that kind of work. After accepting that job, I had a single year of law school left – and on a whim, I signed up for Professor Steven Drizin’s class on wrongful convictions, even though I knew nothing about the criminal justice system. As part of that class, Steve assigned me to work on the case of Brendan Dassey. When I watched Brendan Dassey’s videotaped interrogation – the same interrogation that the world saw in the Netflix docu-series Making a Murderer years later – my life changed. I knew that I belonged by Brendan’s side, and by the side of other kids like him, fighting wrongful convictions and working to reform the justice system. And so, I decided not to become a business lawyer after all; instead, I teamed up with Steve at Northwestern Law to form the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. Talk about serendipity! I’ve been grateful for that “aha” moment every day of my life.
Q: Relatedly, how did you become involved with police interrogations involving youth/children?
Dr. Nirider: In addition to fighting for false confessors, Steve and I are very focused on large-scale, systemic reform in the interrogation room. The interrogation techniques that outraged the world in Making a Murderer are not anomalies: far too often, similar interrogation techniques are taught to police around the country. Even though study after study has identified many of these commonly used interrogation techniques as risk factors for false confession. We have worked with a wide range of incredible partners around the country – from the Innocence Project to the Juvenile Law Center to the American Psychological Association to the private bar – to advance our policy goals. To date, we’ve helped pass laws in 26 states requiring interrogations to be electronically recorded, and that number is fast growing. We’ve advocated for access to lawyers in the interrogation room for kids in both Illinois and California – laws that are the first of their kind in the United States. We’ve also been lucky to work closely with psychologists who are developing less coercive interrogation techniques and with police trainers who are looking for new and more reliable ways of questioning kids. We regularly work to reform the laws that apply in the interrogation room; if – as the federal courts held – the laws don’t prevent what happened to Brendan Dassey, then we need to change the laws. We do this by filing amicus curiae briefs in confession cases around the country, including before the U.S. Supreme Court, explaining how the law contains a number of loopholes that make false confessions more likely – and urging courts to plug those loopholes.
The interrogation techniques that outraged the world in Making a Murderer are not anomalies: far too often, similar interrogation techniques are taught to police around the country.
Q: Can you tell us more about the mission of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth and the challenges you had in its implementation?
Dr. Nirider: The organization represents children and adolescents who have been convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, with a special focus on those who falsely confessed, and teaches law students about the importance of serving as a voice for the voiceless. We’ve been involved in false confession cases large and small – high-profile and low-profile – from every corner of the country, and even overseas. Of course, there were risks involved; at the beginning, we were struggling for funding, and there were times when I wasn’t sure whether I’d still have a salary in a few months. Fortunately, good work speaks for itself; we were able to weather those early days and now find ourselves having helped exonerate more than a dozen individuals. In fact, taken together with our sister project, the Center on Wrongful Convictions, we’ve helped exonerate nearly fifty innocent men, women, and children.
Q: What are the most satisfying aspects of your career?
There’s no feeling in the world like watching someone innocent walk out of prison. We live for those victories.
Dr. Nirider: There’s so much that’s satisfying. I am honored to teach the next generation of lawyers about the importance of using one’s platform and privilege to lift up those without a voice. I am honored to work with some of the most brilliant, committed, and fun colleagues one could imagine – people who inspire me every day. And let’s be honest: there’s no feeling in the world like watching someone innocent walk out of prison. We live for those victories.
Q: Do shows like Making a Murderer have the possibility to be catalysts of change, in your experience?
Dr. Nirider: When you’re trying to change the world, there’s no greater asset than public awareness. Making a Murderer shone a spotlight not only on the injustice that Brendan has been carrying for nearly fourteen years now, but also on the urgent need for reform – and the important roles that ordinary people can play in the fight for reform. As long as people around the globe keep talking about Brendan, keep posting about him on social media, keep his story alive, and keep this conversation going, we won’t be able to forget what happened to him. There’s no catalyst for change like a global demand for justice.
Q: From your perspective, what are some of the challenges facing your field?
Dr. Nirider: Funding is a constant challenge; we represent all of our clients pro bono – we’ve never charged any of them a single penny – so we sustain our work based on donations. As viewers of Making a Murderer saw, too, each case can take years to resolve. It’s not an easy thing, to overturn a wrongful conviction – even where there’s powerful evidence of innocence – because the entire criminal justice system is designed to preserve convictions whenever possible. Clearing someone’s name can take ten, twelve, fifteen years. We’ve been fortunate enough to have done it, with our partners and colleagues, dozens of times; but, of course, justice delayed too often feels like justice denied.
Q: What advice would you give to someone that is interested in following your path?
Dr. Nirider: Fighting for justice is a long, hard slog. Do it with people who inspire you. Remember to laugh and find balance. Invest in a good screaming pillow, but also invest in a fabulous pair of shoes to wear when you walk someone out of prison. Make yourself a damned good playlist or do whatever else motivates you on the hard days. Keep your eyes on the prize. And have fun!
Fighting for justice is a long, hard slog. Do it with people who inspire you.
Thank you, Dr. Nirider, for taking us along your professional career path and inspiring many of us to fight for justice!