Ten years after Making a Murderer subject Brendan Dassey was sentenced to life in prison for the sexual assault, murder and mutilation of Teresa Halbach — along with his uncle, Steven Avery — a U.S. appeals court has upheld a decision to overturn his conviction.
Dassey should be retried or released, recommends a three-judge federal appeals panel from the Chicago-based 7th Circuit. The court described the method used to get Dassey to confess as “death by a thousand cuts.”
The now 27-year-old was originally convicted in 2007 of first-degree intentional homicide, mutilation of a corpse and second-degree sexual assault in the killing of Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc County, Wisc., and was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of parole for 41 years.
Dassey was a mere 16 when Halbach was killed in 2005. She went to the auto salvage yard of the lead subject of Making a Murderer, Steven Avery, to photograph some vehicles and was never heard from again.
Dassey confessed to helping Avery carry out the rape and murder of Halbach, but his lawyers argued that the confession was coerced.
Netflix’s Making a Murderer is a 10-part documentary series that follows the case of Wisconsin natives Avery and Dassey. Avery is currently serving a life sentence (without the possibility of parole) for Halbach’s murder and illegally possessing a firearm. Avery, who had previously been jailed for 18 years for a sexual assault in 1985, was exonerated in that case by DNA evidence in 2003.
Two years later, Avery brought a US$36-million lawsuit against Manitowoc County for the wrongful conviction. The documentary series calls into question the investigation and trial that put Avery and Dassey behind bars and alleges the investigators and police in the case planted evidence and otherwise manipulated the outcome of the trial.
In August 2016, U.S. District Judge William Duffin ruled that police investigators coerced Dassey, who suffers from cognitive and intellectual deficiencies. The state Justice Department eventually appealed the ruling, and Dassey was kept behind bars.
On Thursday, the panel upheld Duffin’s ruling to overturn Dassey’s conviction. The state of Wisconsin now has three options: it can retry Dassey within 90 days, it can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, or it can ask for another review, this time by the entire 7th Circuit.
Johnny Koremenos, a spokesperson for Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, said the office will seek one of the latter two options, and hopes that the “erroneous decision will be reversed.”
“We continue to send our condolences to the Halbach family, as they have to suffer through another attempt by Mr. Dassey to re-litigate his guilty verdict and sentence,” he added.
In a joint statement, Dassey’s lawyers said they were “overjoyed.”
“We look forward to working to secure his release from prison as soon as possible,” they said. “As of today’s date, Brendan Dassey has lost 4,132 days of his life to prison.”
After Duffin’s ruling in 2016, he outlined restrictions for Dassey if he were to be released.
The conditions were:
- He cannot violate any law
- He must appear for court dates
- He must register as a sex offender
- He must admit probation officers to his new home as necessary
- He cannot have any contact with the Halbach or Avery families
If he were to be released, the U.S. Probation Office would supervise Dassey under Duffin’s order. At the time, the judge said:
“Dassey’s family is concentrated in northeastern Wisconsin. There is no indication that he has the inclination much less the means to flee or will otherwise fail to appear as may be legally required. Moreover, Dassey has a strong interest not to flee … Dassey has offered a detailed release plan that was prepared with the assistance of a clinical social worker with experience in similar cases. That social worker would remain involved in assisting Dassey as he adjusts to freedom following his decade in prison.”
The judge also ordered that Dassey would have to disclose where he would be living, but that information would be kept from the public for his own safety.
Dassey’s uncle, Avery, remains convicted of murder but continues to challenge that conviction from prison. It’s not immediately clear if Dassey’s release will have any impact on Avery’s case, though his lawyer, Kathleen Zellner, has filed a 1,272-page motion requesting a new trial.