Brendan Dassey, whose conviction was highlighted in the popular Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer,” asked the Supreme Court on Tuesday to throw out the confession he made more than a decade ago, saying it was improperly coerced.
The controversial interrogation of the then-16-year-old was featured in the award-winning documentary, which premiered in 2015. His confession has been both affirmed and thrown out by lower courts, and his lawyers are now arguing that the Supreme Court should weigh in.
Dassey, now in his late 20s, was convicted in 2007 of the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc County, Wis., and was sentenced to life in prison. Two years earlier, Dassey had confessed to authorities that he assisted his uncle, Steven Avery, in the rape and killing of Halbach. Her charred body was found on Avery’s property.
Dassey was interrogated four times over a 48-hour period, and the videotapes — also delivered to the Supreme Court — appear to show investigators giving Dassey facts about the killing that he does not seem to know.
Dassey had substantial intellectual and social deficits, according to his petition, which was filed by longtime Supreme Court practitioner Seth Waxman, a former solicitor general under President Bill Clinton.
“Put simply, the interrogators took advantage of Dassey’s youth and mental limitations to convince him they were on his side, ignored his manifest inability to correctly answer many of their questions about the crimes, fed him facts so he could say what they wanted to hear, and promised that he would be set free if he did so,” Waxman wrote. “The resulting confession was more theirs than his.”
The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that courts must give “the greatest care” to evaluating whether a minor’s confession is voluntary, Dassey’s petition notes.
But “too frequently, courts simply note a defendant’s age or mental limitations, rather than doing the actual ‘evaluation’ of those characteristics — and how they bear on voluntariness,” Waxman wrote.
The Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld Dassey’s conviction, saying the interrogation was not unduly coercive. Dassey had been read his rights, and his mother consented to the interview. Dassey did not have a lawyer present.
He had more luck in federal courts. A magistrate ruled in his favor, and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld the decision on a 2-to-1 vote.
But the full appeals court overturned that panel decision on a 4-to-3 vote last December.
“Dassey spoke with the interrogators freely, after receiving and understanding Miranda warnings, and with his mother’s consent,” Judge David Hamilton wrote. “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 three dissenting judges called the decision “a profound miscarriage of justice.”
“What occurred here was the interrogation of an intellectually impaired juvenile,” wrote Judge Ilana Rovner. “Dassey was subjected to myriad psychologically coercive techniques, but the state court did not review his interrogation with the special care required by Supreme Court precedent.”
The case is Dassey v. Dittmann.