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Brendan Dassey was convicted in 2007, alongside his uncle Steven Avery, of the rape and murder of Teresa Halbach. That conviction, however, was based on a confession a federal judge found to be coerced. Halbach's murder, and the investigation that followed, were the subject of Netflix's 2015 hit, "Making a Murderer" and Dassey's manipulation by prosecutors, and by his own attorney, became one of the major stories to emerge from the film.
Now Dassey's case is before the Seventh Circuit, where a three-judge panel recently heard oral arguments over whether or not Dassey's confession was valid.
For the few who haven't seen it, "Making a Murderer" recounts the investigation and prosecution following the Halbach murder. The documentary strongly implies that Steve Avery and his nephew were railroaded by Manitowoc County police after Avery won a $36 million suit against the county after serving 18 years for a rape he didn't convict. The manipulation of Dassey, and his subsequent confession, was essential in securing the convictions.
That manipulation included feeding facts to the intellectually challenged 16 year old and coercing a confession. He was told, "You don't have to worry" and everything would "be OK" if he confessed. Even Dassey's own attorney, Len Kachinsky, pressured him to confess, then passed that confession on to officers -- after publicly declaring that his client was "morally and legally responsible" for Halbach's death. Finally, Dassey, who has an IQ of just 73, was repeatedly interrogated without Kachinsky or family present.
Last August, U.S. Magistrate Judge William Duffin ruled that the circumstances surrounding Dassey's confession rendered it invalid:
These repeated false promises, when considered in conjunction with all relevant factors, most especially Dassey's age, intellectual deficits, and the absence of a supportive adult, rendered Dassey's confession involuntary under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals' decision to the contrary was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.
The judge reversed Dassey's conviction and ordered him released, but the Seventh stayed that ruling pending the state's appeal.
At oral arguments on Tuesday, Wisconsin Deputy Solicitor General Luke Berg argued that the detectives never made specific promises or acted inappropriately. "Dassey chose to confess to release those terrible images that were haunting him," Berg said, according to Courthouse News Service's Lorraine Bailey.
Judge Illana Rovner seemed skeptical. How was someone with Dassey's intellectual limitations supposed to understand a metaphorical statement like "the truth will set you free?" she asked. Later, she pointed out that officers had told Dassey "I'm not a cop right now."
"Isn't that a blatant lie?" she asked.
Judge David Hamilton said that Dassey's confession appeared voluntary, and included facts not suggested by the police. Those facts must come from "either his memory or his imagination," Hamilton said. Noting that he watched the entire video of Dassey's interrogations, Judge Hamilton seemed to think that investigators had not "overbore" Dassey's will. "I watched the whole thing," he said. "I don't see any will being overbore."
Dassey's attorney, Laura Nirider said that the video of Dassey's interrogation is now being used as to train detectives on what not to do. When Dassey confessed, she said, "He believed he was going back to school."
A ruling on the case is expected in the coming months. Meanwhile, Dassey's uncle, Avery, is pursuing his own appeal.
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