Late last year, when hard-hitting series Making a Murderer dropped on Netflix, it was all anyone could talk about. The documentary inspired shock and disgust at the horrific murder of a young woman, confusion about the chain of events surrounding a seemingly wrongful conviction and perhaps above all, severe criticism of the America's complex justice system. Here's the trailer:
Over six months on, and just when we thought all the commotion regarding the controversial series had died down, a bombshell has just been dropped on us with full force.
A couple of days ago, Brendan Dassey received some pretty major news when his conviction was overturned by a federal judge in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The young man was originally sentenced to 41 years in prison after being charged with first-degree homicide of photographer Teresa Halbach, second-degree sexual assault and corpse mutilation. He is currently being held at Columbia Correctional Institution.
Following news that he might now be walking free soon, here are three vital questions you probably want answered:
Why was Brendan Dassey's conviction just overturned?
At the age of 16 in 2007, Steven Avery's nephew was sentenced to life in prison with eligibility for parole in 2048. Yet come August 12, 2016, US Magistrate Judge William E. Duffin overturned Brendan's conviction on the following basis:
- Brendan confessed involuntarily and his statement was coerced out of him unlawfully.
- The investigators questioning him made false promises to the youngster, who suffers from "intellectual deficits" and took advantage of his young age — detectives reassured him they were on his side, urging him to provide details of crimes they said they already knew.
- The under-age boy was unconstitutionally interrogated four times over a 2-day period without a parent or his attorney present.
- Dassey was a victim of "misconduct" by his former lawyer Len Kachinsky, who failed to highlight that the statements were obtained lawfully. He also had his own investigator pressure the boy to confess to the murder of Teresa Halbach.
Taking the Fifth Amendment of the US Constitution into account, which guarantees the right to a fair trial, including the right to silence (as well as the 14th Amendment citing equal treatment before the law), Judge Duffin wrote the following in a 91-page decision:
"These repeated false promises, when considered in conjunction with all relevant factors, most especially Dassey’s age, intellectual deficits, and the absence of a supportive adult, rendered Dassey’s confession involuntary under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals’ decision to the contrary was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law."
Conclusively, considering all of the above, the court documents stated that:
"[Dassey] released from custody unless, within 90 days of the date of this decision, the State initiates proceedings to retry him."
To put simply, if the prosecution do not decide to retry Dassey or the judge's decision is not reverted, the 26-year-old will be walking free in less than three months time.
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What were the events running up to a reversal of the conviction?
Three years after being found guilty of being involved in Teresa Halbach's murder, Brendan's legal team set a post-conviction motion in place in 2010. However, the judge denied the request.
Another three years later and the Wisconsin Court of Appeals also supported the judge's decision. Despite this though, Dassey's legal team continued to work on his case, although the Wisconsin Supreme Court did not allow them to review the case.
In 2014 though, his attorney filed the following with the federal court, stating:
"Brendan's Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process were violated by the admission of his involuntary confession."
Come August 2016, and here we are. Prosecutors have now been given 90 days to decide whether to retry Dassey, or he walks free. Steven Drizin, one of Brendan's current attorneys, has revealed he's "ecstatic" about the ruling, saying:
"This is a huge victory. But we are taking a wait and see approach to see what the state’s next move will be.”
What does this mean for Steven Avery?
Essentially, nothing yet. Although his nephew might be the subject of a miraculous case overturn, it seems that this doesn't change anything for Steven Avery. Currently, he remains convicted for murder and continues to appeal his conviction.
Yet, last Friday, his new attorney Kathleen Zellner did say this:
"We fully expected this outcome from an unbiased court that carefully examined his confession. I was just visiting Steven Avery, and he is so happy for Brendan. We know when an unbiased court reviews all of the new evidence we have, Steven will have his conviction overturned as well."
She also tweeted the following:
Court documents state that as it stands, Zellner has until August 29 to file briefs in support of getting Steven's case overturned.
Watch this space.
Do you think Brendan Dassey and Steven Avery are innocent?