Brendan Dassey Case Stirs Bigger Picture Issues

Dec 7, 2016

Brendan Dassey during his trial in 2007.
Credit Tracy Symonds-Keogh

If you’ve watched the Netflix series Making a Murderer, you’re probably familiar with Steven Avery. But, his nephew Brendan Dassey wasn’t as much of a household name – until this summer. That’s when a federal judge overturned Dassey’s 2007 conviction in the rape and murder of photographer Teresa Halbach.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice is appealing the judge’s ruling and attorneys have until Wednesday to file briefs.

WUWM spoke with legal observers who insist the Dassey case proves America’s criminal justice system needs reform.

Brendan Dassey was 17 when he was convicted. His trial focused heavily on his confession to authorities. Dassey took the stand on his own behalf, and insisted that investigators forced him to admit to the crimes.

Prosecutors tried to convince the jury that Dassey’s statements to police were voluntary.  The defense contended that jurors would clearly notice Dassey under duress during his recorded interrogation.  Despite Dassey’s insistence in court that he had lied to investigators, the jury convicted him and the judge sentenced him to life in prison.

Then in a stunning decision in August – 10 years later, a federal magistrate agreed that authorities cajoled the admission from Dassey and threw out his conviction. He’s now 27 and still behind bars, while attorneys argue about his release.

Keith Findley of the Wisconsin Innocence Project says there are several reasons why people falsely confess. “But, the most prominent is simply that people are subjected to psychologically coercive, very intensive interrogation tactics. To make it stop or secure the best outcome that they possibly can, they’re led to believe that they should just confess, even though they didn’t do it,” he says.

Findley and the Wisconsin Innocence Project were instrumental in freeing Dassey’s uncle, Steven Avery, from prison in 2003. A court had convicted him of a sexual assault that DNA evidence later proved he did not commit.

Former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janine Geske believes the Dassey case raises serious concerns about the nation’s criminal justice system, especially as it pertains to children. “How we handle juveniles in our court system, how the police handle them in terms of interviewing and parental presence during that,” she says.

Geske calls prosecutors the safeguards of the system and says they must be vigilant in making sure convictions are just. Another person who believes the criminal justice system is in need of reform is Michael Griesbach. He’s an assistant DA in Manitowoc County, where Dassey was tried.

“It’s a people business. It comes down to what prosecutors, especially prosecutors, how they look at their calling. Is it to win convictions, or is it to seek justice?” Griesbach asks.

Griesbach believes every state should have, within their attorney general’s office, a wrongful conviction unit. It could review convictions to ensure the process and science were just. In the absence of such an entity, people who insist they were wrongly convicted have to rely on the appellate court system or on innocence projects.