Juvenile Law Center

Juvenile and Criminal Justice

Dassey v. Dittman

Juvenile Law Center, Wicklander-Zulawski & Associates, Inc., and University of Virginia Professor of Law, Brandon L. Garrett filed an amicus brief in the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit on behalf of Brendan Dassey, the nephew of Steven Avery whose prosecution and conviction for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach were the central focus of the “Making A Murderer” 2016 Netflix documentary. Police interrogated 16-year-old Dassey, who ultimately provided the confession the police demanded, repeating the suggestion that he assisted Avery in Halbach’s murder. Dassey was convicted and sentenced as an adult; under the terms of his sentence he would not be eligible for parole until 2048. In 2013, the Wisconsin appellate courts rejected his appeals and affirmed his conviction, despite the apparent flaws in the interrogation and investigation. With a new legal team, Dassey then sought habeas corpus relief in the federal district court in Wisconsin.

On August 12, 2016, a federal magistrate judge granted Dassey’s petition, declaring his confession Involuntary under the “totality of circumstances” test and highlighted several aspects of Dassey’s interrogation resulting in his false confession: the investigators’ promises, assurances, and threats of negative consequences in light of Brendan’s age, his intellectual deficits, lack of experience with the police, the absence of a parent during the interrogation, and other relevant personal characteristics.

The totality of the evidence convinced the judge “that the free will of a reasonable person in Brendan’s position would have been overborne.” This conclusion, the court wrote, was not one about which “fair minded jurists could disagree,” and in fact precisely illustrated the “extreme malfunction in the state criminal justice system” that federal habeas corpus relief exists to correct.

The State of Wisconsin appealed the magistrate’s decision to the 7th Circuit. As Amici we argued that Dassey’s juvenile status, disabilities, and the promises of leniency made by his interrogators overrode the voluntariness of his statements and greatly increased the likelihood of a false confession. The importance of protecting vulnerable youth from police coercion is grounded in police best-practices, supported by social science research, and recognized by decades of U.S. Supreme Court case law (Haley; Gallegos v. Colorado, 1962; Roper v. Simmons, 2005; Graham v. Florida, 2010; J.D.B. v. North Carolina, 2010; Miller v. Alabama, 2012; Montgomery v. Louisiana, 2016). In J.D.B., the U.S. Supreme Court grounded this analysis in research on adolescent brain development, clarifying that children’s developmental status must be considered in examining how a child will experience interrogation differently from an adult. Children are more susceptible to coercion, and social science research confirms a link between this vulnerability and high rates of juvenile false confessions.

In a significant win, the Seventh Circuit held that the coercive interrogation techniques used on Dassey did in fact overcome the voluntariness of his confession, concluding that "no reasonable court, having viewed the interrogation as a whole, could have found that Dassey's confession was voluntary." The Court further explained that "[by] linking what the investigators wanted to hear with assurances that those versions would make Dassey 'alright' and 'okay,' the confession became not one borne of Dassey's free will but of the investigators' wills," and admonished that "a court must give extra scrutiny to a child's confession." Dassey is entitled to a new trial because his confession was ruled unconstitutional. The prosecutor has 90 days from the date of the opinion to decide whether or not to retry him.

Further Reading

"7th Circuit refuses to reinstate conviction of Brendan Dassey in 'Making a Murderer' case," Debra Cassens Weiss, ABA Journal, 6/22/2017.

"7th Cir. Overturns Conviction of Brendan Dassey From 'Making a Murderer,'" William Vogeler, U.S. Seventh Circuit (Findlaw blog), 6/23/2017.

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