“Making a Murderer” subject Brendan Dassey had his conviction overturned by a federal judge on Friday, a surprise ruling that could result in one of the subjects of Netflix’s popular 2015 docuseries going free. Here’s how it happened.
In 2014, Dassey’s attorneys filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin, leaving it up to a federal judge to decide whether or not Dassey’s arrest and imprisonment were legal under the terms of the Constitution.
The legal maneuver followed the state Court of Appeals’ decision to reject Dassey’s request for a new trial in January 2013, in which it also deemed his confession voluntary. The Wisconsin Supreme Court similarly denied Dassey’s request to review the case later that same year.
Dassey’s case was one of two followed in the hit “Making a Murderer” series, which depicts the story of his uncle, Steven Avery. Both Dassey and Avery were sentenced to life for the 2005 murder of 25-year-old photographer, Teresa Halbach.
According to Cornell University Law School, “habeas corpus is mainly used as a post-conviction remedy for state or federal prisoners who challenge the legality of the application of federal laws that were used in the judicial proceedings that resulted in their detention.”
In this case, Dassey claimed he was denied his Sixth Amendment right to “effective assistance of counsel,” and that his confession was obtained in violation of the Fifth Amendment.
On Friday, Federal Magistrate William E. Duffin issued his ruling vacating Dassey’s 2007 conviction, in which he also accused Dassey’s appointed attorney Len Kachinsky of “indefensible” misconduct, including allowing his teenage client to be interrogated without an adult in the room.
“Although it probably does not need to be stated, it will be: Kachinsky’s conduct was inexcusable both tactically and ethically,” Duffin wrote in the opinion. “It is one thing for an attorney to point out to a client how deep of a hole the client is in. But to assist the prosecution in digging that hole deeper is an affront to the principles of justice that underlie a defense attorney’s vital role in the adversarial system.”
Ultimately the judge concluded that Dassey’s confession to the crime was “involuntary” due to the investigators’ repeated use of leading questions and coercive interrogation techniques on a minor.
“The investigators repeatedly claimed to already know what happened on October 31 and assured Dassey that he had nothing to worry about,” Duffin wrote. “These repeated false promises, when considered in conjunction with all relevant factors, most especially Dassey’s age, intellectual deficits, and the absence of a supportive adult, rendered Dassey’s confession involuntary under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.