A judge overturned the murder conviction of a man with intellectual disabilities on August 12 who was the subject of a high-profile documentary spotlighting the role of disability in confessions in the criminal justice system.
“This must be a bittersweet ruling for Brendan Dassey and his family. Brendan’s experience has been unique, thanks to Making a Murderer,” the Arc, which runs the National Center for Criminal Justice and Disability, wrote in a blog post. “The documentary revealed to the masses just how easy it is to force a confession from people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
“My hope is that those following this case will come to realize that our jails and prisons are full of Brendan Dasseys, that false confessions are much more common among those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and that there is something we can do about it to prevent future injustice.”
In 2007, a jury sentenced Dassey, then just 16 years old, to life in prison without parole for the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach. He was sentenced along with his uncle Steve Avery, a man who had previously spent 18 years on sexual assault charges for which he was later exonerated.
The police first interviewed Dassey about two months into the murder investigation, which originally focused just on Avery. Dassey, who has an IQ of between 69 and 73 and was receiving some special education services, was not represented by an attorney.
As highlighted in the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer,” the police, using a controversial interrogation technique known as the Reid technique, asked a series of detailed questions of Dassey, who replied most with one-word answers. Dassey, who was not represented by an attorney, confessed on the third interview to slitting Halbach’s throat.
After being charged, he was appointed a public defender, who was subsequently dismissed after letting the police interview Dassey alone, for the fourth time.
In its decision, the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin ruled that Dassey’s confession was involuntary and thus unconstitutional under the Due Process Clause of the Fifth and 14th Amendments. In coming to its decision, the Court considered Dassey’s age and mental capacity.
“[T]he investigators’ collective statements throughout the interrogation clearly led Dassey to believe that he would not be punished for telling them the incriminating details they professed to already know,” Judge William E. Duffin wrote in his ruling, according to the Huffington Post. He pointed out that one investigator at one point said rotely “We can’t make any promises…” but that single and isolated statement was “drowned out by the host of assurances that they already knew what happened and that Dassey had nothing to worry about.”
The state of Wisconsin has 90 days to decide whether to appeal.
Multiple videos, from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal, concerning the Dassey confession can be seen here.