(CN) – The Seventh Circuit on Thursday affirmed a ruling overturning the homicide conviction of Brendan Dassey, finding the “Making a Murderer” subject’s confession to the crime was not voluntary and he should be released from prison unless he is retried within 90 days.
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 rape and murder of Theresa Halbach in 2005. Halbach’s bones were found charred in a burn pit near Avery’s home.
A recent 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 promised lenience that never appeared. 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 August, finding the interrogator’s “false promises” and suggestive interrogation techniques, combined with Dassey’s age, inexperience and intellectual disabilities, rendered his confession involuntary.
Wisconsin prosecutors swiftly appealed, and the Seventh Circuit granted the state’s motion to stay Dassey’s release.
However, on Thursday, the Seventh Circuit ruled 2-1 to affirm the district court’s ruling reversing Dassey’s homicide conviction.
“As will become clear through the entirety of this opinion, we can point to no solitary statement, factor, or interrogation question that rendered Dassey’s confession involuntary (although there were certainly some individual leading questions that came close), but rather it was death by a thousand cuts. Because of the cumulative effect of these coercive techniques—the leading, the fact‐feeding, the false promises, the manipulation of Dassey’s desire to please, the physical, fatherly assurances…reasonable court could have any confidence that this was a voluntary confession,” Judge Ilana Rovner wrote for the three-judge panel’s majority. (Parentheses in original.)
The majority’s opinion further states: “There was no DNA or other physical evidence linking Dassey to this crime in any way—not a strand of his DNA in the garage, Avery’s bedroom, on the RAV4 or its key, on any knives, guns, handcuffs or any other relevant place…There was no forensic evidence supporting Dassey’s story that Halbach had been stabbed, raped, bound or cut. Investigators did find Halbach’s blood in her vehicle and her DNA on a bullet fragment in Avery’s garage.”
Judge Rovner wrote that Dassey had trouble keeping a consistent story during his interviews with investigators, “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.”
Rovner was joined in the majority by Judge Ann C. Williams.
Judge David Hamilton dissented, disagreeing that Dassey’s confession was clearly involuntary.
“A few factors and passages from Dassey’s confession support the majority’s view that the confession was not voluntary. Many other factors and passages support the state courts’ view that, overall, the confession was voluntary,” Hamilton said. “The Wisconsin Court of Appeals could have been much more thorough in its discussion, but its conclusion was within the bounds of reason. It was not contrary to or an unreasonable application of controlling Supreme Court precedent. We should reverse the district court’s grant of the writ of habeas corpus.”
Wisconsin has 90 days to retry Dassey, or he will be released from prison.