Hundreds of thousands of people around the world have seen the Netflix documentary “Making A Murderer.” This is the true story of the two criminal trials of Steve Avery in Manitowoc Co., Wisconsin. Brendan Dassey, Avery’s nephew, is a central figure in the documentary because he was accused, interrogated, arrested, and convicted of the murder of Teresa Halbach.
At the time of his indictment, Dassey was a 16-year-old sophomore at Mishicot High School. Since he had an IQ in the borderline deficiency range, he was enrolled in special education classes.
Dassey appeared in the film when photographer Teresa Halbach, was reported missing by her parents on November 3, 2005. Halbach was known to have visited the Avery Salvage Yard in Manitowoc Co. on October 31, 2005.
On November 10, 2005, following the discovery of her Toyota RAV4 vehicle, Calumet County Sheriff Jerry Pagel found the charred remains of Halbach on the Avery property. Her cell phone, license plates, and car key were also recovered. On November 15, after Avery’s blood was found in her vehicle, Avery was charged with the kidnapping and murder of Halbach, mutilation of a corpse, and illegal possession of a firearm.
Dassey, a special education student who had been clinically evaluated as being highly suggestible to questioning by adults, was interrogated on four occasions over a 48-hour period. This included three times in a 24-hour time frame with no legal representative, parent, or other adult present. The officers placed him in a small room, repeatedly accused Dassey of committing the crimes, and made false promises to him during the 2-day ordeal.
He finally confessed and asked when he could go home.
He was immediately arrested.
I have seen hundreds of custodial interviews, interrogations, and investigative questioning of suspects and defendants. The clips from the video of Dassey’s interrogation are the most shocking I have ever seen.
Dassey later recanted his confession in a letter to the trial judge. He said he got most of his ideas from a book.
At trial, the jury deliberated for four hours, finding Dassey guilty of first-degree intentional homicide, rape and mutilation of a corpse. Though only 17 years old at the time, Dassey was tried and sentenced as an adult. His intellectual limitations were ruled irrelevant. He was sentenced to life in prison with eligibility for parole in 2048.
Dassey fought through a battery of appeals. None of the appeals were significantly successful until last week, when a federal appeals court on Thursday, June 22, 2017 affirmed the decision of a lower court to overturn the murder conviction of Brendan Dassey.
A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled 2-1 to uphold a federal judge’s ruling last year that overturned Dassey’s conviction for a 2005 murder.
By affirming the lower court, the 7th Circuit agreed that the conviction was based on an involuntary and coerced confession that Dassey, now 27, gave as a 16-year-old with a learning disability.
The judges’ three-sentence judgment ordered Dassey freed unless Wisconsin elected to retry him within 90 days or appeal the ruling.
While the Wisconsin Attorney General is “evaluating the court decision”, there really isn’t much to evaluate. Without Dassey’s confession, it would be next to impossible to convict him again.
The Attorney General’s only real options are to dismiss the case or ask the United States Supreme Court to hear an appeal from the 7th Circuit decision.
This Spring, my class watched “Making A Murderer.” I asked them to focus on the story and interrogation of Brendan Dassey. Even my students who plan to be prosecutors, law enforcement officers, and crime lab specialists agreed that the interrogation was “over the top.”
Soon, we will know whether the saga of Brendan Dassey ends in Wisconsin or in Washington D.C.
Regardless of the outcome, I strongly encourage you to take time this summer and watch “Making A Murderer.”
The documentary last for several hours. But, I am confident that most of you will be stuck to your chair or sofa. The film is that riveting.