By Kevin Lessmiller/Courthouse News
(CN) – A divided en banc Seventh Circuit ruled Friday that Brendan Dassey of “Making a Murderer” fame is not entitled to a new murder trial, finding that his controversial confession as a teenager was not coerced.
Dassey, a 16-year-old with “intellectual deficits” at the time of his interrogation and arrest, was convicted of assisting his uncle, Steven Avery, in the brutal rape and murder of Theresa Halbach in 2005. Halbach’s bones were found charred in a burn pit near Avery’s home.
There was no DNA or other physical evidence linking Dassey to the crime, and his conviction rested solely on his confession.
A documentary series called “Making a Murderer” released on Netflix’s streaming service strongly suggests the pair were wrongfully convicted so that rural Manitowoc County could avoid paying a large settlement following Avery’s exoneration for a different crime. Avery served 18 years in prison for a rape he never committed, and had filed a $36 million civil suit against the county.
The series generated new interest in the 11-year-old case, including harsh criticism of the investigators who questioned Dassey without a parent or lawyer present and allegedly promised lenience that never came. Dassey was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole until 2048.
U.S. Magistrate Judge William E. Duffin reversed his conviction last year, finding the interrogator’s “false promises” and suggestive interrogation techniques, combined with Dassey’s age, inexperience and intellectual disabilities, rendered his confession involuntary.
On appeal, a Seventh Circuit panel consisting of U.S. Circuit Judges Illana Rovner, Anne Claire Williams, and David Hamilton affirmed the reversal, with Hamilton dissenting. The court then vacated that decision and decided to rehear the case with the full court.
On Friday, the Chicago-based appeals court ruled 4-3 that Dassey’s conviction should stand.
“The state courts’ finding that Dassey’s confession was voluntary was not beyond fair debate, but we conclude it was reasonable. We reverse the grant of Dassey’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus,” Judge Hamilton wrote for the majority.
Hamilton said that Dassey was not subjected to threats or intimidation and investigators stayed calming while interviewing him.
“When Dassey’s story did not make sense, seemed incomplete, or seemed to conflict with other evidence, the questioners pressed Dassey with further questions. Those techniques are not coercive,” the majority’s ruling states. “Dassey responded to such questioning by modifying his story on some points, but he stuck to his story on others. Those passages support the view that he was not being pushed to provide a false story against his will. For example, Dassey resisted repeated suggestions that he had participated in shooting Teresa. He denied repeated suggestions that he and Avery had used wires and cables in the garage to restrain or harm her. In one telling instance, the questioners tested Dassey by falsely telling him that Teresa had a tattoo on her stomach and asking him if he had seen it. He told them no. When the questioners pushed harder, he was not willing to say he knew they were wrong, but he stuck to his recollection that he had not seen a tattoo.”
Chief Judge Diane Wood, who was highly critical of Dassey’s interrogation during oral arguments in September, penned a scathing dissent. She was joined by U.S. Circuit Judges Ilana Rovner and Ann Williams.
Wood slammed the majority’s decision as “a profound miscarriage of justice.”
“Psychological coercion, questions to which the police furnished the answers, and ghoulish games of ‘20 Questions,’ in which Brendan Dassey guessed over and over again before he landed on the ‘correct’ story (i.e., the one the police wanted), led to the ‘confession’ that furnished the only serious evidence supporting his murder conviction in the Wisconsin courts,” Wood wrote. (Parentheses in original.)
The Seventh Circuit’s chief judge said Dassey’s confession was clearly coerced and should not have been admitted into evidence.
“Dassey will spend the rest of his life in prison because of the injustice this court has decided to leave unredressed,” Wood wrote.
Dassey’s attorneys, Laura Nirider and Steven Drizin with the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, said in a statement that they “are profoundly disappointed by the decision of four judges…to reverse two prior decisions and deny relief to Brendan Dassey.”
“Like many around the globe, we share the view of the three judges who wrote, in dissent, that today’s ruling represents a ‘profound miscarriage of justice.’ We intend to continue pursuing relief for Brendan, including through a petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court,” the attorneys said. “Today’s ruling contravenes a fundamental and time-honored position of the United States Supreme Court: interrogation tactics that may not be coercive when applied to adults are coercive when applied to children and the mentally impaired.”
PHOTO: In this April 16, 2007, file photo, Brendan Dassey appears in court at the Manitowoc County Courthouse in Manitowoc, Wis. Dassey is a Wisconsin inmate who was featured in the “Making a Murderer” series. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2007 after he told detectives he helped his uncle, Steven Avery, rape and kill photographer Teresa Halbach. (Dan Powers/The Post-Crescent, Pool File)