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.
- 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 since his incarceration. Photo: Facebook.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.