Anyone who watched Netflix’s hit 2015 documentary Making a Murderer is familiar with the case of Brendan Dassey, a 17-year-old Wisconsin youth who was convicted of helping his uncle murder Theresa Hallbach. Last Friday, a bitterly divided Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals likely defeated any remaining chance Dassey had of having his conviction overturned and being released.
Some background for those who never saw the series or are unfamiliar with the case:
Brendan's uncle Steven Avery spent 18 years in Wisconsin state prison for sexual assault until DNA evidence exonerated him in 2003. He sued Manitowoc County for his wrongful conviction and became something of a local cause celebre for that movement, inspiring state legislation targeted at reforming police and prosecutorial tactics.
But in November 2005, Avery’s story took a dramatic and unexpected turn when he became the chief suspect in the disappearance and murder of 25-year-old freelance photographer Teresa Hallbach, who was last seen leaving for Avery’s auto salvage yard. A search of the property turned up physical evidence of Hallbach’s remains and other evidence tying Avery to the crime.
Some believed that Manitowoc County officials, seeking to avoid an inevitable multimillion-dollar court award, had planted the evidence to frame Avery for the crime. This is the defense his attorneys presented at his murder trial, and the narrative put forth by the Making a Murderer filmmakers.
Nevertheless, Avery was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to life without parole.
Brendan Dassey, Avery’s teenage nephew, lived on the same property. Brendan was initially questioned by police and admitted to having helped Avery tend a fire the night of the alleged murder, but claimed to have no knowledge of the crime. Several months later, on February 27, 2006, and again on March 1, police removed him from his high school and, with his mother’s permission, brought him to the station for questioning. They were looking for information they could use against Steven Avery.
In a decision she undoubtedly now regrets, Brendan’s mother waived her right to be present during the interview, and Brendan signed a waiver of his Miranda rights to remain silent and have an attorney present during questioning.
It is the March 1 interview that elicited the information leading to the “confession” that was used to convict Brendan Dassey, and which is at the center of his decade-long appeal and the Seventh Circuit’s ruling.
At the time of the interrogation, Brendan was a 16-year-old boy with a below-average IQ. To say he was unsophisticated about the criminal justice system, the nature of his constitutional rights, and the methods of police interrogators would be a massive understatement.
What transpired over the course of several hours that day was an exercise in manipulation that should offend anyone who values justice and fairness, primarily because it was used to send a young man to prison for most of his life. What is even more offensive is that the very state and federal judicial appellate systems that are supposed to check abuses, correct errors, and safeguard individual rights utterly failed Brendan Dassey.
As a result of the police interview, Dassey was convinced to sign a confession in which he admitted participating in the rape and murder of Hallbach and mutilating her corpse. In spite of his attorneys’ efforts to exclude the dubious confession from evidence, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He won’t be eligible for parole until he is 59 years old.
The videotaped interview and signed confession were virtually the only evidence used to convict him.
To be admissible as evidence in a criminal trial, a defendant’s confession must be made voluntarily. That means it must not have been coerced by law enforcement. Brendan Dassey’s confession was coerced.
It is quite likely Steven Avery in fact murdered Teresa Hallbach. It is possible that Brendan Dassey had some knowledge of, or even after-the-fact involvement in, the crime and its concealment. But in a society that values the presumption of innocence and the reasonable-doubt standard before an individual can be deprived of his freedom, Brendan Dassey’s story is disturbing; indeed, frightening.
There is enough reasonable doubt here to drive a tractor-trailer through.
To Be Continued
In my next post, I’ll discuss more details of Dassey’s police interrogation and the various court decisions that culminated in last week’s Seventh Circuit ruling that narrowly upheld his conviction.
Photo: By Tracy Symonds-Keogh (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons