Brendan Dassey, the nephew of the man at the center of Netflix's Making a Murderer series, must be released from prison if the state of Wisconsin does not choose to grant him a new trial, a federal appeals court ruled on Thursday.
Dassey, the nephew of Steven Avery, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Teresa Halbach, but questions surrounded Dassey's confession to the crime — highlighted in videos of the confession included in the Netflix show.
"If a state court can evade all federal review by merely parroting the correct Supreme Court law," Judge Ilana Rovner wrote of the state's ruling that Dassey's confession was not coerced, "then the writ of habeas corpus is meaningless."
The US Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit panel which heard the state's appeal of Dassey's case reached the decision that the confession was coerced on a 2-1 vote, with Judge David Hamilton dissenting. Judge Ann Claire Williams joined Rovner's decision for the appeals court. A federal district court had previously ruled in Dassey's favor, ordering that he be released or retried. The state appealed that decision, and the appeals court ordered that Dassey remain in prison during the appeal.
The appeals court held that the state court did not properly examine the "totality of the circumstances" when considering whether Dassey's confession was impermissibly coerced. The appeals court also ruled that the state court's finding "that there were no promises of leniency or other factors that overcame Dassey’s free will" did not fit with the available evidence of the interrogation and confession.
At one point in the lengthy decision, Rovner summarized Dassey's "characteristics and deficits" that should have, the appeals court held, been taken into account in that decision.
"Sixteen‐year‐old Dassey walked into the interrogation room without a parent, a lawyer, or an advocate to look out for his rights. He had never had any contacts with law enforcement prior to his interviews in this case. As described in the fact section, he was passive, docile and withdrawn. He also suffered from intellectual deficits. His IQ was in the low average or borderline range. ... [H]e had difficulty understanding some aspects of language and ex‐ pressing himself verbally. ... Testing also revealed ... he was likely to be more suggestible than 95% of the population," Rovner wrote.
Regarding the promises of leniency — the interrogators repeatedly told Dassey things like, "It's not your fault" — the court said: "[W]e recognize that false promises, like other interrogation techniques, do not, per se, make a confession involuntary. Promises, however, cannot be viewed in a vacuum, but rather assessed as they interact with a defendant’s unique characteristics."
As to Dassey specifically, the appeals court held that the state court "viewed the words of the interrogators alone without reference to Dassey and without looking at their cumulative effect," reaching an "unreasonable" conclusion that the interrogators had only encouraged Dassey to be honest, and had not promised him leniency. If the state court had considered them in the proper context, the appeals court ruled, the state court "could not have come to any other conclusion but that Dassey’s free will was overcome."
After 102 pages considering the facts of the case, Supreme Court law regarding coerced confessions and federal review of state court decisions, and the application of that law to Dassey's case, Rovner concluded: "Had the state court given Dassey’s confession any of this required care, it simply could not have overcome the many doubts that his confession raises about voluntariness."
Because that confession was "essentially the only evidence the State presented against Dassey at trial," the appeals court also concluded that wrongly admitting the confession at trial could not have constituted "harmless error" that would allow the conviction to stand.
Hamilton, in dissenting from Thursday's decision, argued that the majority overstepped its role in reviewing state court decisions under a 1996 law, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.
"The Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s finding that Dassey’s confession was voluntary in a succinct per curiam opinion that rejected that claim in two paragraphs. That was permissible," Hamilton wrote. "While the majority would have preferred a more nuanced and detailed discussion of the circumstances surrounding Dassey’s confession, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) of 1996 does not authorize federal courts to sit in judgment of the length of state court opinions."
Wisconsin officials will now have to decide whether to seek further review of Thursday's decision from the full 7th Circuit or the Supreme Court, to retry Dassey's case, or to release him.