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Brendan Dassey Of 'Making A Murderer' Wins Federal Appeals Court Case

Brendan Dassey is escorted out of court in Wisconsin's Manitowoc County in 2006.
Morry Gash
Brendan Dassey is escorted out of court in Wisconsin's Manitowoc County in 2006.

A federal appeals court has upheld a lower court ruling that the confession of Brendan Dassey, whose case was part of the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer, was involuntary. Dassey was found guilty of helping his uncle kill a young woman in 2005, and has been held in a Wisconsin prison.

The case against Dassey was constructed largely on that confession, in which he stated that he helped to rape and kill a woman named Teresa Halbach, as The Two-Way has reported.

A three-judge panel from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said in its majority opinion that Dassey should be released unless the state of Wisconsin decides to retry him within 90 days or appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now, the state is weighing its options. "We anticipate seeking review by the entire 7th Circuit or the United States Supreme Court and hope that today's erroneous decision will be reversed," Johnny Koremenos, director of communications and public affairs for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Here's further background on the case:

"Dassey was 16 years old when he confessed to helping his uncle, Steven Avery, carry out the rape and murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach.

"Halbach was killed at the Avery Salvage Yard, where she had been hired to photograph vehicles for a magazine, according to court documents. Investigators found burned human remains that matched Halbach's DNA, along with her car, where they discovered multiple bloodstains."

Dassey's 2007 conviction, as we reported, was overturned last August by a federal judge who determined that the confession was involuntary:

"The focus of the judge's decision was on the interrogation when Dassey confessed. Over the course of a three-hour period of questioning, 'generally responding to the investigators' questions with answers of just a few hushed words, a story evolved whereby in its final iteration Dassey implicated himself in the rape, murder and mutilation of Teresa Halbach,' according to the judge's [August] decision."

The state's attorney general filed a notice of appeal against that decision in September, as we reported. In November, the federal judge who overturned the conviction granted a petition for Dassey's release, but just three days later the 7th Circuit granted the state's motion that Dassey remain in prison during the appeals process.

Today, the three-judge panel said it determined the confession was involuntary not because of a single statement or question, instead calling it "death by a thousand cuts." The judges' opinion takes issue with numerous techniques used by interrogators:

"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 as [Calumet County Sheriff's investigator Mark] Wiegert touched Dassey's knee etc. — no reasonable court could have any confidence that this was a voluntary confession."

One judge on the panel dissented, saying that while there were some "factors" supporting the view that the confession was not voluntary, others support the view that "overall, the confession was voluntary."

Dassey's lawyers called today's ruling a "significant step closer to achieving justice." In a statement, they said, "In rejecting the State's assertion that Brendan confessed voluntarily, the court acknowledged what many parents already recognize: Brendan's youthfulness and intellectual disability make him particularly vulnerable in the interrogation room."

The state has argued that "Dassey's confession was not coerced because the investigators who questioned him never made him any explicit promises," as the Journal Sentinel reported.

Dassey's uncle, Steven Avery, was convicted in a separate trial and is serving a life sentence.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.

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