Brendan Dassey's conviction overturned in federal court
August 12, 2016 9:21 PM   Subscribe

In a 91-page decision, a federal judge today overturned Brendan Dassey's conviction in Teresa Halbach's murder. (Full opinion available here.) The Teresa Halbach case recently made headlines in the popular 2015 Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, which focused primarily on the case, circumstance, and trial of Dassey's uncle Steven Avery. The case against Brendan Dassey was based in large part on a confession that documentary filmmakers, lawyers, and ultimately a federal judge deemed to be involuntary and coerced. In granting the writ of habeas corpus, the federal judge ruled that the State has 90 days to either release Dassey, or schedule the case to be re-tried by a jury, presumably without the inadmissible confession.
posted by likeatoaster (31 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I'm glad to see this. Dassey's interrogation was a travesty.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:33 PM on August 12, 2016 [12 favorites]

Wow. I wonder if this would have happened without the Netflix series.
posted by youngergirl44 at 9:37 PM on August 12, 2016 [9 favorites]

The Netflix series certainly did make a lot of slimeballs and sycophants look bad. I wonder if this will be enough to shame the fourth estate into being a little more vigilant.

No, probably not.
posted by rokusan at 12:30 AM on August 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

The Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, always envisioned Netflix documentaries as part of the checks and balances on a corrupt judiciary. The system works.
posted by Behemoth at 3:29 AM on August 13, 2016 [112 favorites]

I've read a few well-reasoned arguments that the documentary was dishonest in its reporting on Avery's side of the case, but I haven't seen too much backlash against the filmmakers for their coverage of Brendan's case. Just watching that "confession" and his interaction with his unethical lawyer and the investigator easily convinced me that Dassey is nothing but a victim of injustice. I must admit that I wish the US would adopt UK interrogation rules--no lying to suspects and no interrogations of minors or neuroatypical people without appropriate adults. Initially, the LEOs of the UK were convinced that they would never solve a case under the new rules of interrogation, but those fears have not been borne out by their solve statistics.
posted by xyzzy at 3:35 AM on August 13, 2016 [30 favorites]

I've read a few well-reasoned arguments that the documentary was dishonest in its reporting on Avery's side of the case,

I've heard this as well, but any good ones you can recommend?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 3:47 AM on August 13, 2016

Speaking of UK rules, Scots law requires corroboration i.e. two separate sources of evidence. This means no convictions purely on the basis of a confession. There was an attempt to change this recently, but I don't think it went ahead. Part of the argument was that prosecution of rape and a few other crimes can fail through lack of corroboration, but one thing that clearly came across in Making a Murderer was just how unsafe some "confessions" can be. Using them as the sole evidence in a murder case seems crazy. I realise that wasn't the only evidence presented against Dassey, but if his confession had any truth to it, there would have been bucketloads of physical evidence, yet none was adduced.
posted by GeckoDundee at 3:59 AM on August 13, 2016 [8 favorites]

always envisioned Netflix documentaries

As well as investigative, long form podcasts...
posted by sexymofo at 4:28 AM on August 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

The Founding Fathers, in their wisdom, always envisioned Netflix documentaries as part of the checks and balances on a corrupt judiciary. The system works.

You joke, but this is very much what the First Amendment is supposed to be for.
posted by kewb at 5:32 AM on August 13, 2016 [40 favorites]

Oh, his mother.
posted by amanda at 6:20 AM on August 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm so glad to hear this. I couldn't bear that he was convicted on the basis of a confession that could have been used as a near-parody version of "how not to secure a confession" case-study for law students. It was a complete and utter travesty and I genuinely don't know how the people involved sleep at nights. Christ alone knows how many Brendan Dasseys are rotting in prison.
posted by billiebee at 6:30 AM on August 13, 2016 [10 favorites]

The MaM people wore their bias on their sleeve with Avery -- I don't know if it was dishonest; they were always clear about what they thought -- but I didn't think they needed to do anything to make Dassey's confession look worse than it was. I'm very happy about this and I hope they release him soon.

Does anything ever happen to the people who did this to him?
posted by jeather at 7:16 AM on August 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

"An undercover FBI agent egged on a would-be terrorist shortly before he opened fire on a Texas cartoon contest."

Generally speaking, the authorities do not want to prevent you from committing crimes. It's too hard to quantify the benefits (What exactly would you have done? How many people would you have hurt? Maybe you never would have done anything at all!) and it's almost impossible to sell a "crimes prevented" statistic as justification for a budget or salary increase. (Plus, if you don't offend, they have a slightly harder time justifying punishing you.)
posted by IAmUnaware at 7:40 AM on August 13, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm very glad for him, and wonder if the state will try to prosecute this young man who has lost so much of his life.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 7:53 AM on August 13, 2016

roomthreeseventeen: I'm very glad for him, and wonder if the state will try to prosecute this young man who has lost so much of his life.

From what I've seen the state will bargain to extort some sort of technical confession in return for them not kicking and screaming and dragging the process out as long as possible. This restores some 'legitimacy' in the views of some people (horrible people) and prevents them from suing.
posted by Mitrovarr at 9:05 AM on August 13, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've researched false confessions. It was horrific and enlightening to watch the tape of his coercion.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 9:05 AM on August 13, 2016

I've read a few well-reasoned arguments that the documentary was dishonest in its reporting on Avery's side of the case

Please do share. I've read several articles that questioned the positions of the documentary, but all of them included quotes from Katz and members of the police department, essentially standing their ground.
posted by KGMoney at 9:28 AM on August 13, 2016 [1 favorite]

Flagged as fantastic. Wonderful post, likeatoaster.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:42 AM on August 13, 2016

So when do the lawyers and cops go to jail and lose their jobs forever for colluding to extract a false confession from a minor?

I've read a few well-reasoned arguments that the documentary was dishonest in its reporting on Avery's side of the case

I would also like to read these. I did some digging into this side of the argument after I watched the series and didn't find anything overt about what they did or didn't cover in the doc.

More than that it seemed that practically all of the pieces I read calling the doc biased were missing the point of the entire debate. The question isn't really whether Avery murdered Halbach (I give that a 50% chance personally, same for Adnan Syed too for that matter). The question is, "Should Avery have been convicted based on the available evidence?" And the answer to that is, based on what I know, a glaring and unambiguous "no."
posted by cmoj at 10:50 AM on August 13, 2016 [11 favorites]

But, but, the police and the people in the DA's office are omnipotent good guys! When they fixate on a person, and bend or break the rules to get a conviction, it's because they just know that no good person has to be put away for the good of society!


OK, on a more serious note: thank god. I commented in the thread about the series, but the treatment of Dassey by his ostensible legal counsel and the members of the police force was completely unconscionable. Even though it would only be the tiniest step towards making it right, I would love to see him not only released, not only not re-charged, but in fact I would like to see his original lawyer as well as the police who coerced him doing some serious jail time.
posted by tocts at 11:18 AM on August 13, 2016 [7 favorites]

A decent series of articles re: summing up the dishonesty in Making a Murderer were written by Dustin Rowles: here, here, and here are probably the best collective reads, although he's gone into more detail in many other posts.
posted by mightygodking at 12:48 PM on August 13, 2016 [4 favorites]

I would also like to read these.
Most of the discussion I've had on MaM happened in the unresolved mysteries subreddit, but there's a TechInsider article that summarizes "the other side" what I think is the most troublesome aspect of the documentary. In the documentary, the filmmakers strongly favor the narrative that the police planted blood evidence in this case. In particular, the defense theorizes that evidence of apparent blood vial tampering is the only explanation for the appearance of Avery's blood in the victim's car. The documentary further insinuates that the EDTA testing is basically bullshit. Which it is, but only from a criminal trial POV--it was introduced in such a way that the defense didn't have much time to assemble a counter to the evidence. But the science is not bullshit. The FBI used proper procedures and the entirety of the EDTA testing case materials are now online. From my perspective, the most persuasive arguments don't leave out possible strong counters to your narrative--you should address them and explain why an issue might still exist.

Do I think Avery still needs a new trial? Absofuckinlutely. One of the jurors has a son who is a sergeant in the Manitowoc police department and also tons of contact with the police through his volunteer efforts. When my brother was called for voir dire in a case that involved potential police misconduct he was excused because he worked on redesigning the 911 system as part of his job and therefore had close ties to the emergency responders in his community. I believe that the same should have been done in this case. Other reports of potential juror shenanigans have convinced me that there's enough of a question about the deliberation in this case that the whole thing just needs to happen all over again.
posted by xyzzy at 1:43 PM on August 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

This is huge relief as Brendan's treatment was the most disturbing and saddening part of the documentary by far.

While I have no problem seeing the bias of the film makers, there are still plenty of red flags with how the case and trials were handled.

I've also been following the MaM subreddits off and on, and the reddit sleuths have made a few interesting (if not entirely scientific) discoveries. For example:
(1) Despite the testimony that the RAV4 key found in Avery's room was found by heavily shaking a bookcase and the key dislodging from the backboard, there are before and after shots where everything on top of the case (piles of loose change, receipts, etc) remains unmoved.
(2) And this one made headlines last week: one redditor noticed that among the bone fragments used for evidence were apparent non-human fragments including bird bones, possibly chicken wings.
posted by p3t3 at 5:05 PM on August 13, 2016 [5 favorites]

Oh y'all, this decision is just so, so important. (Full disclosure - I was a student in the law school clinic that represented him, though I my last semester in the clinic was at the same time as his trial, so I never worked on his case. His federal habeas lawyer was one of my classmates.) This is a federal judge acknowledging that interrogation tactics that may be effective in questioning experienced criminals -- or even just adults -- can be coercive when used on teenagers. This is huge! This is something Steven Drizin (one of the deans of the clinic at Northwestern Law and my former professor) has been working to convince not just lawyers and courts but also the general public of for years -- that juvenile brains are different; that kids have different motivations and concerns; that teenagers don't have the same kind of impulse control that adults do -- basically, that the justice system (from the police through the courts and into prison) cannot treat teenagers like small adults because they just Are. Not.

Anyway, I am just so, so thrilled for Dassey, and I'm also thrilled for his lawyers and the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. This is a big, big moment in juvenile justice.
posted by devinemissk at 6:42 PM on August 13, 2016 [24 favorites]

I wish this weren't incredibly common. Along with eye and earwitness testimony, confessions are not particularly reliable as evidence, but are incredibly persuasive to a jury.

If you're interested in hearing former FBI agents, including a criminal behaviour analyst, talk about the case, the podcast Real Crime Profiles has several episodes about it, particularly the interviews with Brendan Dassey. It's worth listening to.

They are definitely more pro-prosecution than I'll ever be, but they have an interesting take on the case.

And while I also wish that the people who did this would be punished, that very rarely ever happens. Even in cases where there is deliberate police or prosecutorial misconduct.
posted by guster4lovers at 8:57 PM on August 13, 2016

Along with eye and earwitness testimony, confessions are not particularly reliable as evidence, but are incredibly persuasive to a jury.

We also know that much forensic evidence lies somewhere between "reliability is overstated" and "pseudoscientific garbage". It's a miracle that the guilty party ever goes to jail at all.
posted by Justinian at 10:59 PM on August 13, 2016

A confession that is *properly done* is actually very good evidence. One of the things about the interview protocol in the UK is that in the first go around, they simply concentrate on getting an extremely detailed account of what the suspect says happened. Then they come back and push on any inconsistencies, always having that first account as a reference. It works remarkably well, apparently.
posted by tavella at 10:31 AM on August 14, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have hypothesized for years that the normalization of coerced confessions via the Chicago Reid technique on shows like Law & Order and the Chicago series primes jurors to accept that the cops just want to put the unquestionably bad guys away and should be given as much leniency as possible in order to Make America Safe. Very rarely do these dramas re-examine "solved" cases and take responsibility for the role of the Reid technique in putting innocent people in jail.
posted by xyzzy at 3:58 PM on August 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

I know exactly what you mean. The older that I get, the harder I find it to view police procedurals as anything but propaganda. Even a show like The Wire, where I think a lot of people would argue tries to show the seedy underbelly, ends up making heroes out of characters that turn out to have been based on absolutely terrible real-life cops.

I don't know what kind of prize it deserves, but I would throw Blue Bloods up there as probably the worst of them at the moment. Calling it pro-police propaganda would not even begin to describe how unbelievably biased it is. I don't watch it, but have caught bits of it because of proximity of someone who does, and literally it does things like, have episodes in which the Very Sympathetic Police Chief (Tom Selleck) explains to his granddaughter that her college friends who think the NYPD could possibly be racist are very intolerant, etc.

The show is un-fucking-believable, and yet somehow also totally unremarkable in the context of the genre. The police are psychic superheroic good guys, and civil rights are just some lousy rules made up by bureaucrats to protect moustache-twirling villains.
posted by tocts at 7:18 PM on August 15, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've recently been rewatching the first season of Numb3rs, and there was an episode (Identity Crisis) that was very startling because it had a case where one of the leads had convicted the wrong man, and it wasn't anything wacky, he was just flat out wrong. It hit on the fact that the standard lineup system is highly prone to false positives, it pointed out that the current state of fingerprint evidence is fundamentally unscientific, it had someone confessing falsely because admitting guilt was the only way he would be eligible for parole, it even had the victim's (innocent) husband holding back information about his wife's affair because he had already been questioned for 48 hours and he knew it would just make him look like more of a suspect.

It was just really surprising to see -- usually 'maybe I convicted the wrong man!' is just a setup to reaffirm how always correct the leads are, or to reveal a dark conspiracy that the leads couldn't have known about. It's very rare for them to be just wrong because of a confluence of bad policing. We could use a hell of a more of that in modern procedural TV.
posted by tavella at 8:00 PM on August 15, 2016

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