With Making a Murderer subject Brendan Dassey’s presumption of innocence restored for now, his murder trial and post-conviction appeals will likely leave a lasting impression on the criminal justice system.
First, it is difficult to deny the worldwide attention the case has attracted since the documentary premiered in 2015. Dassey’s case, however, has been making its way through the system for 10 years. Making a Murderer sprung into the mainstream.
While the June 22 decision to uphold a 2016 ruling that Dassey’s confession was involuntary was a major win for his lawyers, the State of Wisconsin also sealed a win of sorts by blocking his release from prison on bond. The decision throws the case back into the hands of Attorney General Brad Schimel, who is expected to petition the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals to review the lower court’s decision en banc in a last-ditch effort to keep Dassey’s 2007 conviction in place. Schimel could avoid all of that and just retry the now 27-year-old. However, with no evidence outside the confession, the state has little to work with.
However, the confession itself has shed a considerable amount of light on how Wisconsin’s law requiring all custodial interrogations of juveniles to be videoed is working and what courts need to look for when determining if police are following proper procedures. Dassey’s interrogation videos are some of the first to be videotaped since it became mandatory in 2005, the year Teresa Halbach was killed.
And while one judge dissented in the 2-1 ruling to throw out the confession, the question of how Dassey was treated during the confession is taking a backseat to what was said to him during multiple hours of questioning.
Judge David F. Hamilton wrote in his dissent that Dassey was not under duress during questioning and that the then 16-year-old behaved like most wrongdoers when he reluctantly gave up details of the crime and his involvement. In short, Hamilton said, the interviews were gentle. Dassey was not threatened and false promises were not made.
Dassey’s lawyers, however, have not accused Mark Wiegert and Tom Fassbender of placing their client under duress by verbally or physically mistreating him. Quite the contrary. Brendan was treated kindly. The officers offered him offered breaks, food, and something to drink. What the investigators did do improperly was manipulate a learning-disabled minor into believing they already knew details of the crime, and misled him into corroborating the state’s narrative of how Halbach was killed. Prosecutors used the teen as a bargaining chip– as his uncle’s alibi, attorneys Laura Nirider, Steven Drizin, and Robert Dvorak argue.
That argument alone makes the proceedings a flagship case on the issue of juvenile confessions.
“It has really brought into the national spotlight the hazards of interrogating juveniles,” Daniel Medwed, a professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University, told the USA Today Network.”It’s a good thing that people are talking about these issues.”
[Featured Image by Jaslyn Gilbert/AP Images]