A judge overturned the conviction of a Wisconsin man found guilty of helping his uncle kill a woman in a case profiled in the Netflix series Making a Murderer, ruling that investigators coerced a confession using deceptive tactics.
In his ruling, U.S. Magistrate William Duffin in Milwaukee ordered Brendan Dassey freed within 90 days unless prosecutors decide to retry him. The state Department of Justice, which handled the case, declined to comment. The state could also appeal Duffin’s ruling.
Dassey’s case burst into the public’s consciousness with the popularity of the Making a Murderer series that debuted in December. The filmmakers cast doubt on the legal process used to convict Dassey and his uncle Steven Avery in the death of Teresa Halbach.
The film sparked national interest and conjecture. Authorities involved in the case have called the 10-hour series biased, while the filmmakers have stood by their work.
Dassey confessed to helping Avery carry out the rape and killing of Halbach, but his attorneys argued that his constitutional rights were violated throughout the investigation. Dassey didn’t testify at his uncle’s trial and his confession wasn’t presented as evidence there. Both men are serving life sentences.
Duffin said in his ruling that investigators made false promises to Dassey by assuring him “he had nothing to worry about.”
“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 (of the U.S. Constitution),” Duffin wrote.
Dassey, who is now 26, was 16 when Halbach, a photographer, was killed in 2005 after she went to the Avery family auto salvage yard to take pictures of some vehicles. Court papers describe Dassey as a slow learner with poor grades, as well as difficulty understanding some aspects of language and expressing himself verbally. He was also described as extremely introverted and poor at picking up on communications signals such as body language and tone.
Dassey was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide, second-degree sexual assault, and mutilation of a corpse in Halbach’s killing. Avery was tried and convicted separately in the homicide.
Avery made headlines in 2003 when he was released from prison after spending 18 years behind bars for a rape he didn’t commit. After being freed, he had a $36 million lawsuit pending against public officials when Halbach disappeared on Halloween 2005.
The Aug. 12 ruling came after Dassey’s appeal was rejected by state courts. The judge said that Dassey’s confession to police in 2006 was “so clearly involuntary” that a state appeals court ruling to the contrary was an unreasonable application of established federal law.
“The court does not reach this conclusion lightly,” Duffin wrote.
The investigators did not have any ill motive, the judge wrote, but rather “an intentional and concerted effort to trick Dassey into confessing.”
The error was not harmless because Dassey’s confession was the entirety of the case against him, the judge said.
Laura Nirider, one of Dassey’s attorneys, said he thought that if he told investigators what they wanted to hear, he’d get to go back to school.
“This is justice for that 16-year-old kid ... who we all saw being bullied into giving a statement that was completely untrue,” she said.
Dassey, who has been incarcerated for 10 years, is in shock and wants to go home, she said. If prosecutors decide to bring a new trial, the confession would not be usable, she said.
A brother who has acted as a Halbach family spokesman did not immediately respond to phone messages and an email.
Kathleen Zellner, an attorney for Avery, said in a statement that Avery was thrilled for his nephew. Avery is pursuing his own appeal.
“We know when an unbiased court reviews all of the new evidence we have, Steven will have his conviction overturned as well,” Zellner said.
Joe Friedberg, a defense attorney in Minnesota who was not involved in the case but is familiar with it and participated in a forum on it with Avery’s first defense attorney, said he doesn’t believe the decision will have any bearing on Avery’s case.
“The kid’s confession was not entered into evidence against Avery, and I don’t think it impacted Avery’s trial at all,” Friedberg said.
Netflix last month announced that new episodes of Making a Murderer are in production to follow appeals by both Avery and Dassey.
“As we have done for the past 10 years, we will continue to document the story as it unfolds, and follow it wherever it may lead,” filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos said in a written statement following last week’s ruling.
A timeline of events in the Brendan Dassey case
Oct. 31, 2005: Teresa Halbach, 25, of St. John in Calumet County, a photographer for Auto Trader Magazine, goes to Avery’s Auto Salvage near Mishicot to photograph a minivan for sale by Steven Avery’s sister. Evidence later shows Avery called asking for her to come, using his sister’s name.
Nov. 3, 2005: Halbach’s family reports her missing.
Nov. 5, 2005: Halbach’s cousins find her vehicle under brush and auto parts in the Avery salvage yard. Charred bone fragments found in a burn pit later are determined to be her remains.
Nov. 8, 2005: Avery tells reporters he fears authorities are trying to frame him for Halbach’s slaying because he sued Manitowoc County officials for $36 million for wrongful conviction. Avery spent 18 years in prison for rape before DNA evidence cleared him of the crime and he was freed in 2003.
Nov. 9, 2005: Avery is arrested and, based on past convictions for burglary and other crimes, charged with possessing firearms as a felon. Authorities say two guns were in his trailer home.
Nov. 15, 2005: Avery is charged with first-degree intentional homicide and mutilating a corpse.
Feb. 14, 2006: Authorities announce Avery has settled his lawsuit against Manitowoc County officials for $400,000.
March 2, 2006: Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey, then 16, is charged in adult court with being a party to first-degree intentional homicide, mutilation of a corpse and first-degree sexual assault. Prosecutors base the charges on a videotaped statement in which Dassey detailed the killing, saying he and Avery raped and killed Halbach and burned her body. He later recants the statement.
Jan. 29, 2007: A judge dismisses sexual assault and kidnapping charges against Avery because Dassey may not testify at his trial.
Jan. 30, 2007: A judge says defense attorneys can tell jurors that Avery was wrongfully convicted of rape and may use as evidence a vial of his blood found unsecured in the Manitowoc County courthouse. Defense attorneys say discovery of the vial supports their claim that blood was planted to frame Avery.
Feb. 12, 2007: Avery’s trial begins.
March 12, 2007: After the prosecution and defense rest, the judge dismisses the false-imprisonment charge, saying he doesn’t think the jury has enough evidence to find Avery guilty. Avery has not taken the witness stand. Dassey also does not testify in Avery’s trial.
March 18, 2007: After deliberating for nearly 22 hours over three days, jurors convict Avery, now 44, of first-degree intentional homicide and being a felon in possession of a firearm. Avery is acquitted of the charge of mutilating a corpse.
April 16, 2007: Dassey, now 17, goes on trial before a jury selected in Dane County.
April 20, 2007: Prosecutors play Dassey’s videotaped confession for the jury.
April 23, 2007: Dassey testifies in his own defense, saying he lied when he gave the statement but doesn’t know why. Avery does not testify.
April 25, 2007: After 4 ½ hours of deliberation, the jury convicts Dassey of being party to first-degree intentional homicide, mutilation of a corpse and second-degree sexual assault. Sentencing is scheduled Aug. 2.
June 1, 2007: Avery is sentenced to life in prison with no possible parole.
Aug. 2, 2007: Dassey is sentenced to mandatory life in prison with a possibility of parole set for Nov. 1, 2048.
December 2015: Netflix releases the series Making a Murderer, in which the filmmakers cast doubt on the legal process used to convict Dassey and Avery. Authorities involved in the case have called the 10-hour series biased, while the filmmakers have stood by their work.
Aug. 12, 2016: A judge throws out Dassey’s conviction, ruling that investigators coerced a confession using deceptive tactics. He gives prosecutors 90 days to decide whether to retry Dassey.
Associated Press writers Amy Forliti and Doug Glass contributed from Minneapolis.