The murder confession of a Wisconsin man featured in the Netflix series “Making a Murderer” was coerced, a federal appeals panel ruled Thursday, affirming a lower court decision.
Brendan Dassey, now 27, didn’t admit “from his own free will” that he helped his uncle murder and sexually assault photographer Teresa Halbach in 2005, a U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals panel ruled in a 2-1 vote. The decision upholds Judge William Duffin’s 2016 ruling that Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, investigators violated Dassey’s rights in obtaining the confession.
“In sum, the investigators promised Dassey freedom and alliance if he told the truth and all signs suggest that Dassey took that promise literally,” the appeals panel said in its opinion. “The pattern of questioning demonstrates that the message the investigators conveyed is that the ‘truth’ was what they wanted to hear. Dassey, however, had trouble maintaining a consistent story except when he was being led step‐by‐step through the facts, thus confirming that this confession emerged not from his own free will, but from the will of the investigators.”
Dassey has already served about 10 years of a life sentence. Thursday’s ruling may trigger steps toward his release. Wisconsin prosecutors will appeal, Johnny Koremenos, spokesman for the state Department of Justice, told HuffPost.
“We anticipate seeking review by the entire 7th Circuit or the United States Supreme Court and hope that today’s erroneous decision will be reversed,” Koremenos said. “We continue to send our condolences to the Halbach family as they have to suffer through another attempt by Mr. Dassey to re-litigate his guilty verdict and sentence.”
Dassey was sentenced in 2007 to life without parole for the killing. His confession formed the basis of much of the prosecution’s case against his uncle, Steven Avery, who was convicted in a separate trial and sentenced to life.
Kathleen Zellner, Avery’s attorney, celebrated the ruling on Twitter.
Attorney Jerry Buting, who helped defend Avery during the “Making a Murderer” series, said on Twitter he knew Dassey’s confession was false and believes Dassey may soon win freedom.
Dean Strang, who defended Avery with Buting, said the lawyers were “relieved and gratified” by Thursday’s ruling.
“Brendan’s statements were involuntary ― by the standards of common sense and decency that most Americans apply in their own lives, as well as under binding law that the Wisconsin courts repeatedly failed to apply,” Strang said in a statement emailed statement to HuffPost. “His statements were also wholly unreliable and flatly wrong on essential details, which is one of the obvious risks of coercing a statement from someone in custody.”
At one point in the “Making a Murderer” documentary series, prosecutor Ken Kratz describes a supposed timeline of the crime that appears based on Dassey’s account. But a tape of the police interview with Dassey looks less like a detailed confession and much more like coercion.
Dassey was 16 at the time of the interview and wasn’t accompanied by a lawyer or parent. According to court records, he has an IQ of 69 to 73. An IQ of 70 is often considered the threshold for intellectual disability. The tape shows police posing detailed questions to Dassey, who replies with short, often one-word answers.
Saul Kassin, a psychology professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told HuffPost in an earlier interview that this controversial style of police interrogation has led to numerous situations in which an innocent person ends up confessing to a crime. Teens are especially susceptible, he said.
In an analysis of hundreds of cases going back to 1989, false confessions were found to be a leading cause of wrongful convictions, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic dedicated to exonerating people who have been wrongfully convicted. Overall, about 31 percent of wrongful conviction cases included a false confession. But for homicide cases alone, that number balloons to 63 percent.
In his petition for release, Dassey argued that his attorney had a conflict of interest in the case. He also alleged that his confession was coerced by law enforcement and that investigators made false promises to him.
This article has been updated to include Strang’s statement.