The full 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals convened in Chicago, Ill., Tuesday to consider the constitutionality of Brendan Dassey’s confession in the hit Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer,” after his conviction for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach.
Dassey’s uncle, Steven Avery, was “Making a Murderer’s” primary subject. Avery was originally convicted of the sexual assault of Penny Ann Beernsten, a Wisconsin woman assaulted while running along the Lake Michigan shoreline in 1985. DNA evidence later exonerated him of the offense. Approximately two years after his release, Avery and his nephew, Dassey, were arrested and convicted of Halbach’s murder — her charred remains were found by police in the Avery family salvage yard. The pair was sentenced to a life term in prison. The crime was examined at length in the Netflix series.
A federal judge in Wisconsin vacated Dassey’s conviction in 2016, finding his confession to the crime was coerced and violative of the 5th and 14th Amendments. Video of an interrogation conducted by two police officers, during which time the confession occurred, indicate the officers used aggressive and coercive tactics resulting in Dassey’s gradual acquiescence. The officers repeatedly made false promises to Dassey and insisted that they already had established what occurred during the crime. The vacatur was later upheld by a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit.
Dassey was a teenager at the time of the confession and also has cognitive disabilities. He is now 27.
Wisconsin secured a rare en banc appeal after the three-judge panel sided with Dassey. En banc review refers to a case which is heard by every judge on a federal appeals court. It is generally reserved for cases implicating legal issues of the highest importance. In this instance, all 12 judges of the 7th Circuit will participate in Tuesday’s hearing.
Prosecutors say review is essential because the tactics used by police during the Dassey interview are common to many interrogations. Should the court find these methods unconstitutional, law enforcement says they would have to substantively revise interrogatory techniques while many other inmates could appeal their convictions.
Should Dassey prevail, the state could make a last-ditch appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Given the high likelihood that the justices would decline review, the Wisconsin attorney general would then have to decide whether to release Dassey or retry him.
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