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  • Writer's pictureTracy Keogh

The Conviction and Integrity of Brendan Dassey

“They’re still kids, they’re still kids and we have to remember that and were kids when found guilty… on a broader scale I am one that believes in redemption” – Governor Evers.

In 2006, Brendan Dassey was a kid. He could not have spelt redemption. But he would have guessed.

Ingested by a state harbouring a justice system debilitated by “truth-in-sentencing” laws, Wisconsin’s legislature and the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s office created a macabre avatar, luridly parading the 16-year-old softly spoken, intellectually challenged Dassey to the ill-informed mass. However, 13 years on, the heaving congregation are no longer ill-informed, they are educated and mobilised. Waiting. Expectant.

Repeal Truth-in-Sentencing

Walker’s mottled governance was a special interest funded trajectory from the Republican gilded age of the mid 90’s, a doyen tasked with constructing and passing the harsh and pro prison-privatisation ideology that is “truth-in-sentencing”. Tempered by the legislature in the next decade, Walker reinstated it with renewed vigour in 2011. Pillaging parole, early-release opportunities and creating momentum to have minors and juveniles assessed through the system as adults. Walker wilfully circumvented the fundamentals of rehabilitation. His callous contempt for those deserving of atonement would leave thousands of petitions languishing on the desk of a dysfunctional and vacant parole commission office interred in the nebulous depths of the Wisconsin State Capitol.

Conviction and Clemency

The National Registry of Exonerations, a compendium of wrongful conviction cases, records that 2,425 wrongfully convicted individuals have been exonerated since 1989 – spending a cumulative 21,000 years incarcerated for crimes they did not commit. The executive power once conferred on Walker now sits with the professedly progressive Governor Evers. The state’s top executive has asserted he will issue pardons, commutations and (expectantly) clemency; while the wrongfully convicted of Wisconsin may find themselves stymied by a state who have felt it their duty to maintain the finality of judgements, could merciful remedy be a reality for Brendan Dassey?

“…we’re going to be putting together our pardons board in the near future, people do improve their lives…I say a lot of people have the right to petition the government about redemption and we will be creating that pardon board that Scott Walker didn’t have.” – Governor Evers

Will Wisconsin Establish a Conviction Integrity Unit?

But how robust is Governor Evers commitment to conviction review? In amassing the members of his Public Safety and Criminal Justice Reform Policy Advisory Council, will Wisconsin join more than 37 other states in establishing a Conviction Integrity Unit?

The proliferation of CIUs across the country puts a focus on reform as more than a medley of left leaning policies, and that bipartisan coalitions can reach across the aisle and address criminal justice reform in a less draconian way than their predecessors.

There are 2,300 prosecutorial offices across the United States with CIUs concentrated primarily in the more populous counties. Although not created equal with disparity between staffing numbers and the number of exonerations per unit, the ethos of investigating problematic convictions, reversing inequitable sentences and addressing agendas thwarted by a cautious judiciary underpins the focus of all Conviction Integrity Units. We need only look for example of efficiency to the more recently established unit in Chicago where 70 convictions have been reversed since 2017. Or the Putnam County NY Prosecutors office which serves a population of 100,000 with five prosecutors, with two of those prosecutors reviewing each innocence petition lodged.

A conviction integrity unit does not replace the authority of the courts in a jurisdiction and its workings are not governed by court rules of procedure, a CIU investigates claims of actual innocence and is not viewed as a 13th juror. The majority of CIU exonerations have been thoroughly investigated by attorneys and innocence organisations with considerable pushback and resistance by prosecutorial offices prior to CIU involvement. The role of the CIU is to assess the integrity of the conviction and work to prevent, identify and remedy a wrongful conviction. Safeguarding the integrity of a conviction by appraising new eyewitness testimony, new evidence or an egregious appellate court decision is the obligation of every prosecutor. Unfortunately there are many cases of prosecutorial misconduct exploiting the code of professional ethics, one such case is Brendan Dassey's.

Political Leanings and Reform

Unfortunately for Brendan Dassey there was neither a Conviction Integrity Unit, nor a prosecutor involved in his wrongful conviction that championed prosecutorial reform. 2006 saw Dassey’s future dependant on the policies of prosecutors influenced by the political context and hierarchy of the environment of small-town Manitowoc.

As the role of the “professional exonerator” (innocence organisations, CIU units and independent or law school affiliated non-governmental organisations) becomes the raison d'être for overturning wrongful convictions, the hope for gubernatorial pardons in Wisconsin are a tentative actuality for the many deserving of redemption – including Brendan Dassey.

As Governor Evers readies himself to announce the chair of the parole commission, we must lean in to the 23,377 currently incarcerated (a number wrongfully) in Wisconsin, with a further 65,000 on community supervision at a cost of $1.2 billion (2017); a tangible cost to the Wisconsin tax payer. As many District Attorneys across the US respond to the need for CIUs, will the panel tasked with advising Governor Evers, recommend the establishment of a Conviction Integrity Unit in Wisconsin?

When Brendan Dassey uttered “I’m really stupid Mum, I can’t help it” this was not the failing of a suggestible, vulnerable teenager but the exposure of the systemic failures that permeate through the juvenile justice system of Wisconsin.

“I strongly believe that 17-year old’s should be treated as kids… they’re still kids” said Governor Evers.

Brendan Dassey was just a kid.

Free Brendan Dassey.

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