It will be months — if not years — before Brendan Dassey’s fate is determined by the criminal justice system, but the controversial case has already made a national impact.
“This is a big case,” said Marsha Levick deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia. “It has received a tremendous amount of attention; millions of people saw it unfold.”
Dassey’s conviction in the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach has been the subject of intense scrutiny since the December 2015 release of the ultra-popular Netflix docu-series “Making a Murderer.” The conviction was overturned by a federal judge last August, but Dassey has remained in prison while the Wisconsin Department of Justice appeals the ruling.
Last week, oral arguments were held at the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. And while Dassey's appeal focuses largely on the circumstances surrounding his police interrogations, the implications of the case are far-reaching, legal experts say.
“In terms of juvenile false confessions cases, this is probably the most widely known one — the one that has captured the most attention of people,” said Lindsay C. Malloy, assistant professor in the department of psychology at Florida International University.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Malloy told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin. “There are millions of people who are aware of this case.”
Malloy said the Dassey case has focused considerable attention on wrongful convictions, false confessions and interrogations of juveniles. She said false confessions account for 42 percent of all wrongful convictions among juveniles.
The intense interest generated by the Dassey case is reminiscent of the Central Park jogger case in New York City, Malloy said. That case involved a vicious attack on a woman in 1989 and the subsequent convictions of five teenagers who confessed to the crime. They were later released from prison after the actual perpetrator was identified.
The Central Park 5 case was “huge” in terms of false confession cases, “but the attention from the Dassey case is bigger,” Malloy said.
“It’s one of the biggest cases and most widely known examples of wrongful convictions and bad interrogations, false promises of leniency.”
In overturning Dassey’s conviction last August, Federal Magistrate William Duffin ruled that Dassey’s constitutional rights were violated because false promises were made during interrogations. The state contends that investigators acted properly and made no promises during the interrogations.
"None of those memories (of Halbach’s murder) were planted," said Luke Berg, Wisconsin’s deputy solicitor general. “They were raw and real."
Levick, of the Juvenile Law Center, disagrees, saying the confession was tainted. The center filed a brief with the Seventh Circuit in support of Dassey due to the “compelling and disturbing” issues surrounding the interrogation. Dassey was 16 when he was questioned by detectives.
“We thought it was important to address in terms of where the interrogation goes wrong,” Levick said. “(The brief) also illustrates the vulnerability of teenagers to veiled or coercive tactics. There were things that were especially egregious in Dassey’s interrogation.”
Levick said “it would be quite significant for the field of juvenile justice” if Dassey wins in court.
“The more that we can call attention to false confessions from kids based on law enforcement (interrogations), the better for our justice system,” she said.
Malloy agreed, saying the techniques used in the Dassey interrogations “are used all the time with juveniles,” but “Making a Murderer” put his case in the spotlight.
Source: USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin