Laura Nirider was in her third year at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law a decade ago when she began working on a case of a teenage boy who confessed to the rape, murder, and mutilation of a Wisconsin woman.
The teen was Brendan Dassey, and he confessed to helping his uncle brutally murder 25-year-old Teresa Halbach on October 31, 2005. Dassey and Steven Avery are the subjects of the hit Netflix series Making a Murderer.
Dassey was tried as an adult and convicted on April 25, 2007, a month after Avery. Dassey was going to prison; Nirider was preparing for the bar exam and landing her first job. If that wasn’t enough for her to think about think about, Professor Steve Drizin handed her a video tape with hours of footage she would never forget.
“It changed my life,” Nirider said in a video about how she came to represent Dassey. “I brought it home and watched three-and-a-half hours of police interrogators extracting an obviously false statement from a frightened and intellectually limited 16-year-old boy. I was heartbroken and outraged.”
As it turned out, Nirider went to work for the law firm of Sidley Austin in 2008, while still working on Dassey’s case pro bono. But, her time in private practice was short lived. A year later, she returned to the place where Drizin introduced her to Brendan Dassey and became the co-director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, one of two positions she still holds. Nirider is also a clinical assistant law professor at Northwestern.
“I threw myself into Brendan’s case,” she said.
And while Dassey is still behind bars, Nirider’s fight to free the now 27-year-old continues. But she’s not been alone. The last 10 years of hearings, motions and appeals-court arguments have given the next generation of law students a first-hand account of how a working attorney handles a landmark case.
His Uncle’s Alibi
As seen in Making a Murderer, Dassey’s confession is the fulcrum of the state’s case against both suspects, even though it was not used in Avery’s trial. Yet Brendan was his uncle’s alibi, solidifying Calumet County District Attorney Ken Kratz’s version of how the crime took place. It also convinced the jury that Brendan was guilty of first-degree murder, mutilation of a corpse and second-degree sexual assault even though no physical evidence has ever tied him to Halbach’s remains, the alleged crime scene or her SUV.
While those who teach it say it’s an effective questioning tool, the Reid Technique has also been accused of being a way to coerce false confessions from psychologically manipulated subjects, something Drizin and Nirider maintain was done to Dassey by investigators Mark Wiegert and Tom Fassbender.
“An interrogation is a guilt-presumptive process,” Drizin said during a 2016 presentation about the Dassey case. “And the Reid Technique begins the same way.”
There’s usually a break during the interrogation, he says, after which officers return and directly accuse the subject of committing the crime. In Dassey’s confession, Wiegert and Fassbender used phrases like “We already know,” “We’re on your side,” and “The truth will set you free.” But, only one of the phrases is arguably true. The truth is always the best way out of any situation by most standards. However, police certainly did not “already know” what happen to Teresa Halbach. when they were questioning Dassey. And most people understand that the police are never on the side of a criminal suspect.
In 1969, the Supreme Court decision Frazier v. Cupp, 394 U.S. 731, made it legal for investigators to use deceptive interrogation tactics. And while the provision includes lying to suspects, the Reid Technique teaches that officers should not use deception when interviewing young children, subjects with mental limitations, or “youthful suspects with low social maturity.” As a 16-year-old with an IQ in the 72-73 range, Brendan Dassey met those requirements in 2006, Nirider argues. Also, most legal experts would say that the interviews would have gone much differently had Dassey had an attorney or his mother present.
Neither was, only Brendan, and the deception continued, Nirider says, followed by false promises and planting of facts into the boy’s mind.
“They promise him help if he just tells them what the interrogators believe to be true,” Nirider said. “And they even say several times, ‘We’re going to help you out, Brendan.’ But, over the years, these promises of help have been disavowed by John E. Reid & Associates, the company that teaches police officers how to do interrogations.”
Brendan Dassey’s conviction was ruled involuntary last year, although he remains in Columbia Correctional Institution while the Wisconsin Attorney General challenges the ruling. A decision is pending in the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.
[Featured Image by Dan Powers-Pool/AP Images]