Brendan Dassey and Wisconsin's Kangaroo Court
18 months ago, if you had asked me who Justice Abe Fortas was, or to cite the Supreme Court Justices of the United States, I would have nervously laughed and feigned an answer. I had at that time relocated from Dublin to Melbourne, and thoughts were full of reclaiming the country I was brought up in, and writing for a new company that had headhunted me from Dublin.
Fast forward to July 2017, and not only can I recite the Supreme Court Justices, I too fear for the health of Ruth Bader Ginsberg. I have drunk from the juvenile justice masterpiece that is In re Gault finding myself suitably intoxicated and compelled in equal measure. I greedily harbour a quote from the author of that landmark decision (Justice Fortas) “The condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court” as no quote resonates so profoundly as an advocate for the wrongfully convicted Brendan Dassey.
Why the United States, why am I not pushing for reform in the Australian juvenile justice system? I care about Ruth Bader Ginsberg and balance prevailing on the US Supreme Court, I want the state of Wisconsin to implement measures as recommended by Chief Justice Shirley S Abrahamson. Who when handing down the per se rule that mandated the electronic recording of all juvenile interrogations, stated:
"Wisconsin must do more than apply the ‘totality of the circumstances’ rule to protect children and families and tackle the problem of false confessions. Mandating electronic recording of juvenile interrogations is a very important step, but it is only one step. I would have the court fashion a rule requiring participation of an interested adult in the interrogation process of juveniles."
I care because of Brendan Dassey.
It has been a tumultuous 18 months (over 11 years for Brendan’s family), the delivery of the Habeas Corpus decision was an incredible high, the smell of hope and expectation fervently shared by thousands of supporters, to the heart-breaking stay upheld by the 7th Circuit Court in November of 2016. We knew Brendan had packed, this young man, so close to going home after being ripped from the hearth over 10 years previous, had been given a glimpse of a future, past the immured walls of Columbia Correctional.
Paying witness albeit by proxy, as the expanse of the Pacific Ocean dotted my trajectory, I was privy to the inside of the 7th Circuit Court as supporters and opponents lined the halls waiting for the Oral Arguments.
Feeling both repulsed and excited, 3am Melbourne time found me waiting expectantly for the Orals to be uploaded so that I could garner some hint of favour from the 3-judge panel of the 7th Circuit. I found myself annoyed at Berg (WISDOJ) and his repetition of "we are on Habeas right" as if admonishing the court and conversely moved by the impassioned defence - with Laura Nirider’s “they teach him” bringing a lump to my aging throat.
It still does.
So now Brendan’s legions of supporters await yet another ruling from the federal appellate court, having won a 2-3 affirmation from the 3-judge panel in June. As expected the state of Wisconsin led by AG Brad Schimel requested an en banc review with prosecutors parroting the dissent by Judge Hamilton, in a petition filed just half an hour before the deadline. The element of surprise lost on a state who thought nothing of coercing a false confession from a highly suggestible, vulnerable teen; of deploying two seasoned investigators and the persuasively draconian REID Technique to elicit a narrative so incredulous, it would be laughable if not so tragic. I will wait confidently.
To quote Laura Nirider, Brendan’s lead counsel “Brendan’s case has literally changed the course of my life”, I along with thousands of others champion that statement.
I care an awful lot because of Brendan Dassey.