Photo courtesy of Lex18.com
Written by Melanie-Ann DeLancey
Brandon Dassey, one of two men convicted of murder and featured in the Netflix docu-series Making a Murderer, made headlines again when the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an August 2016 federal magistrate judge’s ruling regarding Dassey’s confession. The three-judge panel found that the confession of Brendan Dassey, the nephew of Steven Avery, was coerced and involuntary. Prosecutors must now decide whether to appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States, request review by the full Seventh Circuit, or retry Brendan Dassey within 90 days.
Making a Murderer, released in 2015, was filmed over a ten-year period, following Steven Avery’s trials and tribulations as he went from prison, to DNA exoneration, to prison again. The series specifically focuses on Avery’s and Dassey’s convictions for the murder of Teresa Halbach.
Specifically, in episode four, the series documents how investigators brought high-school sophomore Brandon Dassey, who has an IQ between 74 and 81, in for questioning without a parent or guardian. The investigators then proceeded to various interrogation tactics that ultimately led to Dassey giving a confession.
In its ruling, the Seventh Circuit pointed out how the investigators would chastise Dassey when he failed to answer questions in a way that investigators would like.
“[T]hroughout the interrogation it became clear that ‘honesty’ meant those things that the investigators wanted Dassey to say. Whenever Dassey reported a fact that did not fit with the investigators’ theory, he was chastised and told that he would not be ‘okay’ unless he told the truth. And this pattern continued until Dassey finally voiced what the investigators wanted him to say, seemingly by guessing, or the investigators fed him the information they wanted. Once he spoke ‘correctly,’ the investigators anchored the story by telling Dassey, “now we believe you” to signal to him that this was the version that would allow him to be ‘okay,’ or ‘set him free.’ By doing this—by linking promises to the words that the investigators wanted to hear, or allowing Dassey to avoid confrontation by telling the investigators what they wanted to hear—the confession became a story crafted by the investigators instead of by Dassey. And, as we will see, it was a confession that therefore cannot not be viewed as voluntary.”
During one interview, Special Agent Tom Fassbender said to Dassey, “I’m a father that has a kid your age, too. There’s nothing I’d like more than to come over and give you a hug ‘cuz I know you’re hurtin’.”
The Court’s decision discussed assurances made by investigators that they would not leave Dassey “high and dry” and discussed how Dassey’s account of the murder began to change throughout his interrogations. According to the Court, his own responsibility in the murder seemed to increase in response to the suggestions made by investigators.
The Court noted that “special caution” is required under the Supreme Court’s ruling in J.D.B. v. North Carolina when assessing the voluntariness of juvenile confessions. The State of Wisconsin never evaluated any of the factors such as age, experience, education, background, and intelligence.
Furthermore, the Court discussed the risks of coercion in evaluating a defendant’s so-called voluntary confession. The Court concluded that “[n]o reasonable court could have come to the conclusion that Dassey’s confession was voluntary.”
Dassey is now 27 years old and serving a life sentence. He is represented by The Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University. The Wisconsin Department of Justice reportedly plans to either request a review by the entire Seventh Circuit or to petition the Supreme Court.
Kristine Phillips, ‘Making a Murderer’ Confession was Coerced and ‘Crafted by Investigators,’ Court Affirms, Wash. Post (June 23, 2017).
Dassey v. Dittmann, No. 16-3397, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 11113, at *38-39 (7th Cir. June 22, 2017).
J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 564 U.S. 261, 269 (2011).