A federal judge in Wisconsin overturned the conviction of Brendan Dassey, a young man whose story gained national attention through the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer,” and ordered him to be released within 90 days unless prosecutors file an appeal.
The judge’s 91-page opinion concludes that Dassey’s constitutional rights were violated by the way investigators handled the case.
Dassey was 16 years old when he confessed to helping his uncle, Steven Avery, kill a young woman named Teresa Halbach. He was ultimately sentenced on homicide and sexual assault charges in the case in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.
“Making a Murderer,” a 10-episode series that aired on Netflix last fall, revisits the Halbach case and paints a sympathetic picture of both Dassey and Avery. The filmmakers suggest the pair may have gotten an unfair trial — particularly Dassey, who has an intellectual disability and who was questioned without his lawyer present. Footage shows Dassey being manipulated by investigators into potentially giving a false confession.
U.S. Magistrate Judge William Duffin endorsed that assessment in his decision on Friday, writing that “the investigators’ actions amounted to deceptive interrogation tactics that overbore Dassey’s free will.”
The opinion focuses on the hours-long interrogation periods leading up to Dassey’s confession. Recordings from these sessions show the prosecution’s investigators repeatedly telling Dassey they’re looking out for his best interests; giving Dassey false assurances he has nothing to worry about; feeding Dassey pieces of information about the crime they had already constructed; and failing to ensure the presence of a sympathetic adult in the room, such as a lawyer or a parent.
Those deceptive tactics — combined with Dassey’s below-average intellectual ability — “rendered Dassey’s confession involuntary under the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments,” according to Duffin.
Dean Strang, one of the defense lawyers for Avery featured in the “Making a Murderer” series, said he is “relieved and gratified” by the ruling.
“Our federal courts are often the last protectors of our liberties and justice. We are thankful and proud that a federal court fulfilled its fundamental role for Brendan Dassey today. In doing so, this federal court served all Americans,” Strang said in a statement emailed to the Huffington Post.
“Making a Murderer” was a wildly popular show when it became available on the streaming service last November.
After the Netflix series aired, hundreds of thousands of people signed online petitions seeking pardons for Avery and Dassey. Those petitions were ultimately unsuccessful: President Obama is not authorized to grant federal pardon for state crimes, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) is not interested in pardoning convicted criminals in his state.
Other popular true crime stories have sparked similar public interest in years-old cases — and influenced the criminal justice system.
For instance, after the hugely successful first season of “Serial,” a podcast that revisited the 1999 conviction of Adnan Syed for murdering 17-year-old Hae Min Lee, a judge ordered a new trial for Syed.
While pop culture may help these cases gain notoriety, however, they’re far from uncommon here in the United States.
Dassey’s imprisonment is just one example of the potential consequences of eliciting a false confession, which is one of the leading causes of wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project. More than one in four people who are later exonerated by DNA evidence made a false confession or incriminating statement to the police that aided their wrongful conviction. And the wrongfully convicted people whose names are later cleared are disproportionately likely to be poor, black, or both.
“The reasons that people falsely confess are complex and varied, but what they tend to have in common is a belief that complying with the police by saying that they committed the crime in question will be more beneficial than continuing to maintain their innocence,” the Innocence Project explains on its website.
The United States has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world, and the vast majority of the more than 2 million people behind bars don’t benefit from a popular podcast or television show drawing attention to their case.