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Four Things that You Need to Know about the Brendan Dassey Case

By Carlita Salazar

The Innocence Blog recently interviewed Laura Nirider, the project director for Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern University and an attorney for Brendan Dassey. As many know, Dassey was Steven Avery’s co-defendant in the 2005 rape and murder of Teresa Halbach in Wisconsin and one of the key subjects in the Netflix series Making a Murderer.

Many were shocked to learn at the end of Making a Murderer that Dassey was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison with no parole for 41 years; he was only 17 years old. Nirider and Dassey’s other attorneys argue that there are serious questions around the confession that Dassey gave police and that led to his conviction.

Based on those questions, earlier this year a federal court in Wisconsin granted Brendan’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The state appealed that decision, but yesterday Dassey was released on his own recognizance while he awaits the appeal.

Read the Innocence Blog’s interview with Nirider to learn more about the case and how it’s changed her life.

  1. When did you first learn about the Dassey case? How and why did you become part of his legal team?

Laura Nirider (LN): I first learned about Brendan Dassey’s case, believe it or not, when I was still a law student at Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.  I was a year away from graduation and decided to enroll in a wrongful convictions class taught by clinical professor Steve Drizin.

Unbeknownst to me, Steve had just been asked by a group of Wisconsin attorneys to represent Brendan during his appeal, primarily because of his expertise in juvenile false confessions.  Upon accepting the case, Steve assigned me to it – and I was immediately hooked. In that sense, Brendan’s case literally changed the course of my life.

It opened my eyes to the problems of false confessions and wrongful convictions, two topics to which I’ve subsequently devoted my career.  After graduating, I soon returned to Northwestern Pritzker School of Law as faculty, where I’m lucky enough to be able to study interrogations and confessions and to represent Brendan and other kids like him alongside Steve.

I’m also fortunate to co-teach, with Steve, the same class on wrongful convictions that changed my life nearly 10 years ago.

 

Brendan Dassey recent

Brendan Dassey since his incarceration. Photo: Facebook.

 

 

  1. What is it like to work on such a high-profile case? How do you protect your client and maintain confidentiality when there’s a film crew closely documenting developments in the case?

LN: Any attorney who has represented a high-profile client knows that a crucial balance must be struck in such a situation, given that media scrutiny invokes a host of concerns like client confidentiality.

We are lucky that the Making a Murderer filmmakers understand and respect those concerns.  The respect they have extended us has made it much easier for us to navigate this situation as best we can.

  1. At the Innocence Project, we push for the mandatory recording of interrogations. In Brendan Dassey’s case, the recordings of his being interrogated have finally worked in his favor, but why did they not prevent him from being wrongfully convicted in the first place?

LN: The mandatory recording of interrogations is a crucial reform for which many organizations, including our Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, have joined the Innocence Project in advocating.  In fact, a rule requiring juvenile interrogations to be videotaped was instituted in Wisconsin only a short time before Brendan was questioned, making his interrogation one of the first to be fully recorded under the new rule.

But mandatory recording, while an essential reform, does not ensure that the innocent will be acquitted; it simply ensures transparency.  It is then up to attorneys to argue why the videotape shows a confession that was involuntary and/or false.  Those arguments were not persuasively made to the jury in Brendan’s case.

  1. What can viewers of Making a Murderer look forward to seeing in the upcoming season?

LN: I wish I knew!  All I can tell you is that the filmmakers have continued to document what’s happening in the Dassey case and, I believe, in the Avery case, since the first season was released in late 2015.  What will make the final cut for season two?  I guess we’ll all just have to wait and find out.

 

Learn more: Brendan Dassey’s Confession Highlights Importance of Recording Interrogations

 

11 Comments

  1. Lynn

    I think Brendan being released is the correct choice. Watching the series Making A Murderer, I never believed he was guilty. The jury got it wrong. I was appalled at how his initial interrogation went. The officers who did the interview with him should be ashamed of themselves. I hope that Brendan can move on from this and live a productive life. God bless him.

    • pdxmom

      The thing is — this isn’t an isolated case. It’s much more common than anyone wants to believe. The police have unlimited funds to do ‘investigations’ and if they have their heart set on someone…that’s that.

  2. George Combs II

    I haven’t seen any of the Making a Murderer episodes. But when I saw that “interrogation”, I got angry and did a bit of research. I’m convinced Brendan was railroaded by those “interrogators”, whom I consider criminals. Praise to Judge Duffin. I’m hoping and praying Brendan’s conviction is overturned or (and this is not likely) Governor Walker grants a pardon.

  3. Having spent half of my life in NE Wisconsin, and having worked 11 years in criminal prosecution there, my view is that Brendan’s conviction was a foregone conclusion. The Lord Himself could have argued on Brendan’s behalf, and the jury would not have acquitted him. Note I did not say the jury would not have been persuaded of his innocence. Many, I suspect, were. But Brendan and his uncle had been tried and convicted in the media, and after the trial, those jurors had to return to their homes, jobs, churches. They would not have been able to live in Manitowoc County, or indeed, in Wisconsin, if they had acquitted Brendan, or even been unable to return a verdict.

  4. Jenn Bolyard

    Im so confused right now. I thought Brendan was not released because the state filed a motion for him to remain in prison and they got their wish. I also just seen that he had a special dinner for Thanksgiving in the jail.

    I was finally able to see Making A Murderer this past week. I seen a friend posted about Brendan on their facebook so I decided to binge watch it. I am completely hooked on this case. I hope Brendan and Steven both get out soon. However, I am worried that if they do what will happen to them when they get out. Is Manitowoc gonna come after them again by framing them for something else or do something even worse? Im praying for them and their families.

    Please any new updates????

  5. Nancy Funk

    Excellent point Shelia. I honestly never thought of that and it makes sense to me.

  6. Kim

    Yes, great insight. Media is always one-sided, the public is left in the dark but normally doesn’t realize it until soneone in their family is charged and experiences the injustices of our legal system.

  7. U have got to watch the Making a murderer, once u start u can\’t stp..Also look up forensic Files & the episode w Steven Averys 1st time getting arrested for that rape he didn\’t commit..They make it look like he\’s so,so guilty of that rape, & almost 20 years later, we the world, As well as the woman that was asulted find out it wasn\’t him..One of the biggest let downs in the justice system..How many others are serving life for sm thing they didn\’t do???

  8. Connie Lent

    Wisconsin, has to be one of the most corrupt places I am so shocked at their system and failure to act fairly. I understand the family of Theresa Halbach’s family want to believe they have found the killer or killers, but they are dead wrong. ITS insane, She was getting text messages from WHO not Steven Avery, that should have been a lead it was a man she knew or dated but not Avery or Dassey. You can completely see how the police lied , were unwilling to take the statement of the young cousin, I knew right away she said it for the attention. Wisconsin made a HUGE mistake once and have done it again, they should admit their error and pay Avery for damages as well as Dassey this is completely appalling and needs to be corrected ASAP. How dare the government allow this especially in these times when we need to establish relationships with law enforcement for the better of the people.

  9. Kim Howell

    I knew that was a false confessions the min fassbender said what did u do to her head and he said he pulled her hair. Then fassbender said ok who shot her in the head. I’m no law student and even I know u don’t tell the suspect what happend

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