- Barbara McMahon
Netflix's Making a Murderer: the Brendan Dassey case goes to the US Supreme Court
It was the crime story that gripped millions. Now the US Supreme Court will consider whether a 16-year-old was coerced into confessing.
Two and a half years ago millions of Netflix viewers became obsessed with a documentary series called Making a Murderer, a dark and twisted true-crime story set in a small and impoverished rural American community,
The television show revolved around two men accused of murder: Steven Avery and his 16-year-old nephew Brendan Dassey. Both were convicted in separate trials, of the killing of Teresa Halbach, a 25-year-old freelance photographer. In 2005 her charred remains were found in a fire pit in a scrapyard where Avery and his extended family lived in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.
Many of those who watched the gripping ten-part series were conflicted about the guilt or innocence of Avery. He claimed he had been framed by police and local officials because he was about to launch a $36 million lawsuit against the county after being wrongfully convicted of rape and spending 18 years in prison. Found guilty of Halbach's murder he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
However it was the circumstances surrounding the conviction of Dassey, a quiet and introverted boy with learning difficulties, that lingered in everyone's minds. During a series of videotaped police interrogations conducted over the course of 48 hours with no parent or lawyer present, the teenager confessed to to helping his uncle to rape and murder Halbach.
Although there was no physical evidence linking Dassey to the act and he was unable to describe basic facts about the murder, including how Halbach was killed, detectives allegedly fed him the "right" answers until he made a confession.
At his trial in 2007 his intellectual disabilities - he had a general intellectual ability score in the seventh percentile of students his age - were ruled irrelevant. A jury deliberated for four hours before finding him guilty of rape, murder and mutilating a body. Aged 17 he was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole until 2048.
Today Dassey's lawyers were due to take his case to the US Supreme Court, the highest court in America, though at the last minute the conference was rescheduled. His lawyers will say that the vulnerable juvenile was coerced into making a false admission of guilt.
The Supreme Court has for decades insisted that courts use "special care" when evaluating the confessions of juveniles. "Unfortunately, state courts often disregard these principes, admitting kid's confessions without any special care whatsoever - even in cases where the confessions were later proved false. This is precisely what happened in the case of Brendan Dassey," says Steven Drizin, a member of Dassey's legal team, a professor at NorthWestern University and a long-term advocate for juvenile justice reform.
"We are hoping that the court will vacate Brendan's conviction and order that he be given a new trial in which prosecutors will be barred from using his confession against him." The team will have to wait until next spring for any ruling.
Making a Murderer was released on Netflix in December 2015. The series was a window into the American criminal justice system, an examination of police corruption and flawed interviewing techniques and a fascinating exploration of a family widely regarded in their community as "white trash". It was watched by millions who became obsessed with the two men's innocence or guilt.
To recap the extraordinary story, in 1985 at the age of 22, Avery was wrongfully convicted of the rape of a woman out for a run on the Lake Michigan shoreline. He spent 18 years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence. In 2005 he was about to launch his lawsuit when he was arrested for the murder of Halbach, who had disappeared on Halloween and who was reported missing by her parents.
Halbach, a freelance photographer, was known to have visited the Avery family's sprawling and isolated 40-acre salvage yard to photograph cars for Auto Trader magazine. Days later the victim's Toyota RAV4 was found in a remote corner of the property with its battery disengaged and its number plates removed.
When police searched the scrapyard, they found the young women's charred remains in a fire pit. Her mobile phone, car keys and the number plates were also recovered. Avery's blood was found in her vehicle and other DNA evidence was found on her car key, which was retrieved from Avery's bedroom. Halbach's DNA was found on a bullet in Avery's garage. Avery, who says that the evidence was planted by the authorities, was arrested and charged with murder.
Dassey, whose mother was Avery's sister and who lived with his extended family on the property, had been mentioned in Avery's alibi and was taken in for questioning without legal counsel or his parents present.
He told detectives that he had come home from school, had found a letter in the letterbox addressed to his uncle and had taken it to Avery's trailer. He heard screams, and when he went inside Avery led him to the bedroom, where Halbach was tied up, naked and manacled, on the bed. Avery encouraged his nephew to rape her. Afterwards, they killed Halbach and decided to burn her body, her clothes, her camera and other personal items to cover up the crime.
This confession, however, was starkly inconsistent with the lack of physical evidence. According to his lawyers, Dassey repeatedly gave wrong answers to questions about the crimes, suggesting that he had not been involved.
Undeterred, the two detectives who were questioning him continued to press the susceptible youth, who had been read his rights. The video coverage of the interrogation shows Dassey slumped on a dark grey sofa, looking fidgety and nervous, and giving mumbled one-word or one-sentence replies to questions.
According to the writ that will be presented to the Supreme Court, his lawyers say that the interrogators fed him the "right" answers, consistent with their way of thinking, assuring the teenager that he would be "set free" if only he confirmed what they said.
An excerpt from the interrogation video shows police, who knew the victim had been shot in the head, but who had not released this information to the public, trying to help Dassey to find the right answer by saying, "Come on, Brendan. Something with the head...", to which the teenager responded by saying that the victim had had her hair cut.
"I'm just going to come out and ask you. Who shot her in the head?" said one of the detectives, clearly frustrated. Dassey agreed that his uncle had done it and, when asked why he hadn't mentioned it before, replied: "Because I couldn't think of it."
In another excerpt one of the detectives told him "I'm a cop, but I'm not right now. I'm a father that has a kid your age...There's nothing I'd like more than to come over and give you a hug."
Dassey was also promised that "even though he might fear getting arrested", he wouldn't "have to worry".
After the interrogation, Dassey showed little understanding of the severity of the charges he was facing and asked the detectives if he could return to the school for the last hour of that day's classes because he had a project to finish. He told his mother, Barb, that the investigators "got into his head" and he later recanted his confession, saying that he had made up the gruesome details from a book.
In 2010 there was a hearing to consider a retrial for Dassey on the grounds that he had not had an effective defence and that there had been evidence of misconduct. Incarcerated in Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage, Wisconsin, Dassey wrote a letter to the judge who had presided over his trial and who would hear the new submissions. "Hello, I was going to write to you a while back, but I didn't have a pencil..." The motion was denied.
A further appeal in 2013, adding that Dassey's confession was involuntary, was denied by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.
While public opinion remained solidly in Dassey's favour, his case divided the courts. In 2016 a federal court overturned his conviction and a three-judge panel for the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the ruling. However, Wisconsin's attorney-general appealed, asking that Dassey's sentence remained in effect.
In 2017 a decision by the full Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the ruling in a 4-3 decision and said that his life-term should be upheld. "The interrogation took place in a comfortable setting, without any physical coercion or intimidation, without even raised voices, and over a relatively brief time. Dassey provided many of the most damning details himself in response to open-ended questions," the ruling said, The three dissenting judges call it "a profound miscarriage of justice".
The odds of Dassey getting some relief are long, since the Supreme Court accepts only a small percentage of petitions for review, but his lawyers are hopeful.
"The US Supreme Court has not accepted a juvenile confession case of this type in more than 40 years. But during those same decades, the development of DNA technology has proven hundreds of confessions to be false - including a disproportionate number of confessions from impaired juveniles like Brendan," Drizin says. "Now, more than ever, it is critical that the Supreme Court remind lower courts and police officers of what it said 70 years ago in Haley v Ohio - that tactics which may 'leave a man cold and unimpressed' can easily 'overwhelm and overawe' and unsophisticated and impaired teenager like Brendan Dassey."
Meanwhile, the 28-year-old at the centre of it all passes another day in jail. Dassey is said to give prison authorities little trouble. He has been disciplined for accepting packets of ramen noodles from another prisoner without permission and using prison forms to keep score in games, but he is seen as a co-operative inmate, requiring little supervision.
His mother visits regularly. On her Facebook page there is a picture of Barb with her son in his prison garb. The picture is embellished with orchids and butterflies and the words "Freedom and Justice for Brendan Dassey". His father, Pete - the couple are divorced - also visits. Dassey receives letters and donations to his commissary fund from supporters all over the world, including the UK.
Avery, too is hoping for a breakthrough that might lead to his release. His new lawyer, Kathleen Zellner, has asked a Wisconsin court to grant the 55-year-old a new trial in the light of "explosive evidence" that implicates another person in Halbach's murder.
According to a 54-page motion that Zellner filed this week, Halbach had left the property alive on the day she was supposed to have died. "We are going to keep ringing the doorbell at this so-called court of justice until someone answers it, " Zellner told Newsweek.