In a lengthy decision, Eastern District of Wisconsin Federal Magistrate Judge William Duffin has overturned Brendan Dassey’s 2007 murder conviction of Teresa Halbach. Dassey gained national attention through the Netflix “Making a Murderer” series. The series chronicled Dassey’s uncle, Steven Avery, and his ultimate conviction in the murder of Halbach. Dassey was also convicted of the murder thanks to his confession. And it was how investigators got Dassey to confess that led to Judge Duffin overturning the conviction.
Dassey’s Alleged Involvement in the Murder
When initially interviewed by investigators, Dassey initially denied all involvement or knowledge of Halbach’s murder. But over the course of three interviews Dassey continued to be pressed by investigators. Eventually, without a lawyer or his parents present, Dassey would confess to not only witnessing his uncle kill Halbach, but also that he helped Avery kill her and dispose of the body. The confession was essentially the only evidence prosecutors had against Dassey, and it was enough to secure a conviction.
Dassey appealed his conviction in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, but was ultimately denied all relief and the Wisconsin Supreme Court denied his Petition for Review. Dassey’s only remaining chance was to file a federal Habeas petition in the Eastern District of Wisconsin. Obtaining federal Habeas relief is an incredibly difficult challenge. Federal courts are to give substantial deference to state courts, and the state court’s decision must be so wrong that no reasonable judge could have reached that decision.
Dassey’s petition contained two claims for relief: ineffective assistance of counsel and that his initial confession was obtained in violation of his 5th amendment rights. Without getting too technical, Judge Duffin rejected Dassey’s ineffective assistance of counsel claim because his state appeal focused on theSullivan standard instead of the more oft used, albeit more difficult, Strickland standard. Judge Duffin concluded that the state court of appeals decision properly rejected Dassey’s claims under Sullivan, and therefore the federal court was in no position to reassess that decision. Other errors by Dassey’s trial counsel and how the state court of appeals handled those errors were quickly dismissed by Judge Duffin as well.
This left only the argument that Dassey’s confession was obtained in violation of his 5th amendment rights. Judge Duffin had to consider the totality of all the surrounding circumstances, including Dassey’s characteristics and the details of the interrogation. The investigators use of leading questions and disclosure of non-public facts to Dassey made it difficult to assess whether he knew the facts or was just regurgitating what the investigators told him. The manner in which the investigators interrogated Dassey led Judge Duffin to question the reliability of Dassey’s confession. However, Judge Duffin stated that there is a presumption that because the jury returned guilty verdicts that they believed the confession to be reliable. Therefore, Judge Duffin had to set aside his doubts about the confession’s reliability when he came to his decision on the voluntariness of the confession.
The voluntariness of a confession again involves a totality of the circumstances examination. A number of factors weigh in favor of a voluntary confession – he was questioned during normal daytime hours; he was read his Miranda warnings, he was not interrogated for extensive periods of time. However, Judge Duffin pointed out that there were far more facts that weighed against a voluntary confession. First, Dassey was only 16 years old. He was interrogated without an attorney or parent present. Further, the investigators constantly told Dassey that they were looking out for his best interest. Finally, Dassey had a low to average IQ, which likely made him more susceptible to coercive pressures. The investigators told Dassey that they “knew” what happened that day at least 24 times throughout the interrogation. In reality, the investigators were flatly lying to Dassey.
The state court of appeals determined that there were no “promises of leniency.” Judge Duffin wrote that that determination was against the “clear and convincing weight of the evidence” and that the determination was central to the appeals court’s voluntariness finding. Therefore, the state court’s decision was not just wrong, it was unreasonable. It further was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law – specifically, that involuntary statements are not admissible.
Judge Duffin then addressed whether admitting the involuntary statements at trial was harmless error. He ultimately concluded that because Dassey’s confession was the entirety of the case against him, the admission of his confession at trial was not a harmless error.
What Now for Dassey?
Even though Dassey overcame a seemingly insurmountable hurdle, his legal battles may not be over. Judge Duffin gave the State 90 days to initiate proceedings to retry Dassey or else he has to be released from custody. The State can also appeal this decision to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. If that occurs, Dassey is likely going to remain in custody pending the 7th Circuit’s decision. But it is hard to imagine the state retrying Dassey because it would have to do so without the use of his confession. After reading Judge Duffin’s fact-intensive decision, Dassey’s confession was the only evidence linking him to the Halbach murder. In any event, this decision was a huge win for Dassey and all defendants hoping to win an appeal based on a false or involuntary confession.