If you caught any of Making a Murderer, a 10-part miniseries airing on Netflix that gained in popularity in December 2015, you might know the story of Brendan Dassey. As reported by news agencies, he was convicted of murder in 2007, at age 17, after admitting to the crime during an interrogation by law enforcement officers. However, Dassey’s confession was fraught with civil rights issues regarding the tactics police used while questioning him, leading a federal judge to overturn the conviction. Here’s how Dassey’s attorneys convinced the judge to rule in their favor.
The Case of Brendan Dassey: In 2005, Dassey’s uncle, Steven Avery, was arrested in the death of Teresa Halbach. Her charred remains were found on the grounds of the Avery family auto salvage business, along with her vehicle that contained her blood and Avery’s. Tissue and bone matching Halbach’s DNA profile were also found outside Avery’s home. In addition to this evidence, police interrogated Dassey and obtained a confession, stating that he assisted his uncle in sexual assault and murder. He was convicted in 2007, based solely upon the confession.
Improper Police Interrogation: In August 2016, a judge overturned Dassey’s conviction, agreeing with his attorneys that the interrogation and subsequent confession were unconstitutional. The judge specifically pointed at the interrogation methods of law enforcement officers: The tactics used were overly coercive, particularly considering that Dassey was a minor and suffered from developmental disabilities. His mother was not present and he didn’t have legal representation during questioning, which took place four times over 48 hours.
How Interrogation Tactics May Lead to False Confessions: There are a variety of reasons that a person may confess to a crime they didn’t commit, but they all center on the suspect’s perception that complying with police is better than trying to maintain their innocence. Plus, confessions given by minors are typically unreliable, especially when not the presence of a parent or legal counsel. Juveniles are easily manipulated by some interrogation techniques and they tend to be not fully aware of the consequences. Likewise, people with mental conditions are likely to falsely confess because they feel compelled to agree with authority figures.
Next Steps After Overturned Conviction: After Dassey’s conviction was overturned, prosecutors must go back to the drawing board in attempting to prove his guilt and involvement with Halbach’s death. Because their case rested primarily on the confession, they may decide against pursuing the case. As of August 12, 2016, prosecutors have 90 days to bring Dassey to trial, or he will be released and the crime expunged from his record.
In California, improper interrogation techniques are a violation of your civil rights. If you are facing charges where the evidence against you was obtained during unlawful questioning by law enforcement officers, you may be entitled to a new trial or expungement of your criminal record.
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