CHICAGO (CN) – The Seventh Circuit heard arguments Tuesday over whether Brendan Dassey of “Making a Murderer” fame was coerced into confessing to the rape and murder of a Wisconsin woman a decade ago.
Dassey was convicted in 2007 of helping his uncle, Steven Avery, in the grisly rape and murder of Teresa Halbach two years prior. 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.
At that time, Dassey was a 16-year-old with intellectual disabilities, and he was repeatedly questioned about the Halbach murder without an attorney or parent present.
The detectives repeatedly told Dassey that he would “be OK,” that they were “on his side,” “you don’t have to worry,” “we already know what happened,” and “honesty will set you free.”
Dassey, now 27 years old, was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole until 2048.
U.S. Magistrate Judge William Duffin reversed Dassey’s conviction in August 2016, finding the interrogator’s “false promises” and suggestive interrogation techniques, combined with Dassey’s age, inexperience and intellectual disabilities, rendered his confession involuntary.
But state prosecutors swiftly appealed, and the Seventh Circuit granted the state’s motion to stay Dassey’s release.
On Tuesday, Wisconsin Deputy Solicitor General Luke Berg told the three-judge appellate panel, “Dassey chose to confess to release those terrible images that were haunting him.”
But Judge Illana Rovner immediately interrupted to ask Berg whether he believed a teen with a low IQ such as Dassey would understand the statement, “The truth will set you free,” as an idiom. Dassey has an IQ of 73.
She also noted that one detective told Dassey during the interrogation, “I’m not a cop right now.”
“Isn’t that a blatant lie?” Rovner asked.
Berg said the detectives made those kinds of statements because, at the time, they believed Dassey was a witness, not a murder suspect, and wanted to encourage him to talk to them. Berg emphasized that the detectives never made any specific promises to Dassey to coerce him to tell them a story they wanted to hear.
The solicitor general also defended the detectives’ suggestive use of facts that only the murderer would know.
“It is an entirely appropriate interview tactic,” Berg said. “It is preferable for a suspect to come out with it on their own, but that’s not always possible.”
Dassey’s attorney Laura Nirider told the Seventh Circuit panel that the video of Dassey’s interrogation is now used by police trainers to show how not to interview a suspect.
She said the state court “never put itself in Dassey’s shoes” to consider what a teen with an IQ of 73 would have understood about the detectives’ vague promises.
“He believed he was going back to school,” she said, and he did not understand the consequences of what he was saying. The police officers’ promises to Dassey “are absolutely legally relevant,” Nirider said.
Judge David Hamilton seemed skeptical, saying that Dassey appears in the video to “come out with [the confession] voluntarily.” Hamilton said some aspects of Dassey’s confession were not suggested to him by the detectives.
“So it was either his memory or his imagination,” Hamilton said.
Nirider reminded the court that no physical evidence connects Dassey to the crimes, and nothing corroborates his claims to have shackled Halbach to the bed, raped her, and murdered her in the garage.
Forensic experts found no scratches on the headboard consistent with a woman forcibly chained and assaulted, and no evidence of blood in the bedroom or garage.
Berg confirmed under direct questioning by Judge Hamilton that no one can tell if Halbach was raped or how exactly she was killed because her remains were destroyed.
He closed by saying that no one could have coerced Dassey to remember certain details of his confession, such as Halbach pleading with him to stop while he raped her, and the awful smell while he burned her body.
The Seventh Circuit is expected to rule on the closely watched case within three months. Judge Ann Williams rounded out the panel.