By Christopher Zoukis
Brendan Dassey, the younger defendant convicted of crimes covered in the hugely popular 2015 Netflix documentary series, Making a Murderer, has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse his conviction, arguing police coerced him into making false confessions.
Dassey’s uncle, Steven Avery, is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach, a young photographer for an auto-trading magazine. Saying he wanted to advertise a car for sale, Avery requested Halbach be sent to his salvage lot in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin to photograph it.
Within days, the woman’s car, Palm Pilot and charred bones were discovered on Avery’s property. With a long police history, including an earlier rape conviction overturned on DNA evidence, Avery was a leading suspect; in 2008, he was convicted of raping and killing Halbach, then burning her body in a bonfire.
Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey was 16 and had borderline mental and social disabilities. Although no physical evidence linked him to Halbach’s disappearance, he was convicted, based entirely on confessions he made to local police, for participating in her assault and murder. Now ten years into a life sentence, he’ll become eligible for parole in 2048.
The videotaped session where Dassey confesses shows him struggling, giving seemingly confused, incorrect or contradictory answers before being urged by police interrogators to try again; they also provide hints to the correct answer, using non-public information. They reassure Dassey they were there as fathers, not primarily as policemen, and would “go to bat” for him if he told the truth.
Arguing unsuccessfully to block the statements at his trial, Dassey’s lawyers argued he tried to guess and confirm the answers the police wanted. State appeals courts allowed Dassey’s statements, but a federal magistrate ruled for him, as did a three-judge panel of the Chicago-based 7th Circuit, agreeing 2-1.
When the full Circuit heard the case, it ruled against Dassey, 4-3. Chief judge Diane Wood and two circuit judges strongly dissented, with Wood termed the majority opinion a “travesty of justice.” The dissenters argued not excluding Dassey’s testimony ignored several Supreme Court decisions on the need to assure juvenile confessions are not psychologically coerced.
An impressive array of “friend of court” briefs supporting Dassey have been filed by groups including the American Psychological Association, the Innocence Project, and organizations of criminal law professors and state and federal prosecutors. His lead advocate is Seth Waxman, a former Clinton administration solicitor general.
Even so, many predict that while gaining a Supreme Court hearing could potentially reshape rulings for juvenile confessions, and it won’t be easy. One major obstacle: the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), the 1996 law which restricts review of state cases involving inmates to those with apparent violations of constitutional rights.
Opposing Dassey’s petition for Supreme Court review (Dassey v. Dittmann), Wisconsin argues the Circuit court correctly applied the AEDPA standard, and even if the Supreme Court wants to announce new rules for juvenile confessions, this is a poor case in which to do that.
Days before its scheduled June 14 discussion of Dassey’s petition, the Supreme Court postponed the meeting, without announcing a new date or explaining the delay. At least four of the Court’s nine justices will have to agree for Dassey’s appeal to be heard.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.