The confession of a Wisconsin inmate featured in the Netflix series Making a Murderer was improperly obtained and he should be retried or released from prison, a three-judge federal appeals panel ruled.
Brendan Dassey was sentenced to life in prison in 2007 in photographer Teresa Halbach's death on Halloween two years earlier.
Dassey told detectives he helped his uncle, Steven Avery, rape and kill Halbach in the Avery family's Manitowoc County salvage yard. Avery was sentenced to life in a separate trial.
A federal magistrate judge ruled in August that investigators coerced Dassey, who was 16 years old at the time and suffered from cognitive problems, into confessing and overturned his conviction. The state Justice Department appealed the ruling to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a move that kept Dassey, now 27, behind bars pending the outcome.
A three-judge panel from the Chicago-based 7th Circuit has upheld the magistrate's decision to overturn his conviction.
Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel said his initial step was to ask the full 7th Circuit to review the decision by the three judges.
The state also had the option of going directly to the U.S. Supreme Court or retrying Dassey.
“We need to put an end to this once and for all for Teresa Halbach's family,” Schimel said, speaking on WTMJ-AM.
Dassey's lawyers from the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University said they're elated and will take immediate steps to secure his release.
Attorney Laura Nirider said they want to send Dassey home to his mother as soon as possible.
Schimel said the state will fight any attempts for Dassey's release.
“We've been successful in the past in convincing the courts that while various appeals were pending it was necessary to retain him in custody, that what he was convicted of in the state court is such a serious crime that it would be dangerous to have him out,” Schimel said.
The center's director, Steven Drizin, said the ruling provides a model for the kind of thorough analysis that courts should always undertake in assessing whether a confession was voluntary, and highlights the importance for teenagers to have parents or trusted adults in the interrogation room.
“While these tactics might not have overwhelmed a seasoned criminal or a 30-year-old with a law degree, they clearly overwhelmed a 16-year-old, socially avoidant, intellectually limited (youth) who had never been interrogated by the police before,” he said.
The appellate panel split, with Judges Ilana Rovner and Ann Williams affirming and David Hamilton in dissent. The majority opinion by Rovner said “no reasonable court” could have any confidence that Dassey's confession was voluntary. It cited “the leading, the fact-feeding, the false promises, the manipulation of Dassey's desire to please” as among many factors that cast it in doubt.
Hamilton, in dissent, wrote: “The majority's decision breaks new ground and poses troubling questions for police and prosecutors. It calls into question standard interrogation techniques that courts have routinely found permissible, even in cases involving juveniles.”
Avery and Dassey contend they were framed by police angry with Avery for suing Manitowoc County over his wrongful conviction for sexual assault. Avery spent 18 years in prison in that case before DNA tests showed he didn't commit the crime. He's pursuing his own appeal in state court.
Their cases gained national attention in 2015 after Netflix aired Making a Murderer, a multi-part documentary looking at Halbach's death, the ensuing investigation and trials. The series sparked widespread conjecture about the pair's innocence and has garnered them a massive following on social media pushing for their release.
Authorities who worked on the cases insisted the documentary is biased. Ken Kratz, the prosecutor, wrote in his book Avery that Dassey was “a shuffling, mumbling young man with bad skin and broken-bowl haircut” who could have saved Halbach's life but instead involved himself in her rape and murder and Avery is “by any measure of the evidence, stone guilty.”