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  • Andy Thompson

Criminal justice experts: Brendan Dassey case has wide-reaching, national impact

APPLETON - The federal appeals process has yet to play out, but it’s already clear that the murder case against Brendan Dassey is having a national impact on the criminal justice system.

Dassey won an important victory on June 22, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago affirmed a federal magistrate’s ruling in August 2016 that overturned Dassey’s conviction in the 2005 homicide of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach. The Wisconsin Department of Justice, which intends to appeal the decision, won a victory of its own this week when the Seventh Circuit denied Dassey’s request to be released from prison on bond.

While Dassey’s fate has yet to be determined — the state could still re-try him for Halbach’s murder if the appeals fail — those who have been following the case since “Making a Murderer” hit the Netflix in December 2015 say it has national significance in terms of interrogations of juveniles, false confessions, mental health issues and the treatment of juveniles who are accused of major crimes.

“It has really brought into the national spotlight the hazards of interrogating juveniles,” said Daniel Medwed, a professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University in Boston. “It's a good thing that people are talking about these issues.”

Brendan Dassey is being held at Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage. (Photo: Alison Dirr/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)

A federal judge in Milwaukee ruled that Dassey’s constitutional rights were violated because investigators made false promises during multiple interrogations. Judge William Duffin, in overturning the conviction, said investigators made “repeated false promises” that, “when considered in conjunction with all relevant factors, most especially Dassey’s age, intellectual deficits and the absence of a supportive adult, rendered Dassey’s confession involuntary.”

The Wisconsin justice department disagrees with the ruling, saying investigators made no specific promises to Dassey and argued that his confession was voluntary.

Medwed said the Dassey case “will get a lot of attention nationally. It could draw attention to false confessions and encourage courts to look more closely at these issues."

“It would signal to judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to look more carefully at juvenile confessions,” he said. “People, and juveniles with mental health issues, are often times more open to suggestions and more susceptible to coercion.”

That sentiment is shared by Marsha Levick, deputy director and chief counsel at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.

“There’s no positive value to a false confession,” she said. “It provides no measure of justice to the victim.”

Levick said the focus on the Dassey case in “Making a Murderer” provided a “living record” of how his confession was obtained. She is hopeful that those involved in juvenile prosecutions will take Dassey’s experience into account when they assess cases.

“Having a readily available video (of the interrogation of Dassey) amplified the impact,” she said. “You can look at the circumstances of the interrogation.”

Videotapes from Dassey’s case are being used in some educational and training sessions to illustrate interrogations that can lead to false confessions and overturned convictions.

“I hope it leads to changes,” said Lindsay Malloy, a professor in the department of psychology at Florida International University. “I’m hoping this case leads to the recognition that juveniles are not adults, and we shouldn’t be evaluating them as such.”

Malloy said the popularity of “Making a Murderer” has led to a greater public awareness of false confessions.

“Lay people, those who are not in the (criminal justice) field, have learned what false confessions are from this case and the techniques that can lead to false confessions,” she said. “People used to think that it was only physical coercion that led to these things. You can take someone like Brendan Dassey, a vulnerable person, and chip away in an interrogation like this and get a false confession.”

Levick believes the ruling that overturned Dassey’s conviction will withstand any appeals by the justice department.

“I think the decision should stand,” she said.


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