CHICAGO (WBAY) - Seven judges on one of the highest courts in the United States heard arguments Tuesday in the case of Brendan Dassey. Arguments and questions centered around a biblical quote used by investigators who interviewed Dassey following the murder of Teresa Halbach.
Sketch artist: Cheryl Cook
Wisconsin Department of Justice attorney Luke Berg and Dassey attorney Laura Nirider each presented their case before the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago. Families of Teresa Halbach and Brendan Dassey were there for the hearing.
Dassey and his uncle Steven Avery were each convicted of 1st Degree Intentional Homicide during separate jury trials in 2007. Prosecutors said the duo raped and murdered freelance photographer Halbach on the Avery property in Manitowoc County. The case became one of the most high-profile murders in Wisconsin history after Netflix released the docu-series "Making A Murderer."
A federal magistrate tossed Dassey's conviction, saying his confession to Halbach's murder was coerced, violating his constitutional rights. The state appealed that decision up to the full U.S. Appeals Court.
On Tuesday, attorneys for both sides were given 30 minutes to argue their case. The focus was on Dassey's confession, his age and IQ at the time of the confession, and whether or not it was coerced by investigators. Nirider also argues that Dassey had ineffective counsel in his public defender, Len Kachinsky.
The court did not issue a ruling Tuesday, but the judges did not stay silent. They regularly interjected to ask questions or make commentary about the case. Chief Judge Diane Wood was not shy in her thoughts on the video-taped confession of Brendan Dassey. "The investigators made my skin crawl watching this video, this lulling behavior that they conveyed which was so dishonest," Wood said.
State attorney Berg started the briefing. He argued that Dassey's confession should be upheld by the U.S. court as it was in the state appeals court.
BERG: "Brendan Dassey confessed because his guilt became unbearble. What he and [Steven] Avery did to Teresa [Halbach] was horrific--"
JUDGE: "What happened to Teresa was certainly horrific, but isn't the issue before us, well there are two issues before us as I take it--one is whether the confession you have put together from the various things that Dassey has said was from a constitutional point of view, voluntary, or to put it more accurately, whether the state court determination that it was voluntary was a reasonable assessment.
And secondly, the effectiveness of counsel he received from Mr. Kachinsky, who was representing the victim's family it seems. No one questions the terrible nature of this murder. How could you? But whether Mr. Dassey was responsible for it or whether he went after the fire was lit, is a serious question."
BERG: "Absolutely. The investigators just nudged the confession out of Dassey."
JUDGE: "They did not. Did you really?"
JUDGE: "Oh my."
BERG: "Aboslutely, they took numerous precautions."
Judges continued their questioning of Berg, regarding Dassey's low IQ, which Berg stated was 81 at the time of trial. The judges asked if Dassey, who was 16 at the time of the confession, was given special care for a juvenile who has a low IQ.
Berg defended findings of Wisconsin's appeals court--which upheld the conviction of Dassey--saying it was "outlandish" to suggest the court had not taken into consideration Dassey's limitations during confession.
A judge on the panel said investigators suggested to Dassey that if he worked with them, he would go free, which would amount to a false promise of lenience.
BERG: "As we argued in our brief, courts have consistently held, that there has to be a very specific offer for there to be a false promise of lenience."
JUDGE: "But that's for a competent adult. I think this is where we're intersecting with the youth and the mental limitations, I'll just call it that. There is plenty of evidence whether he's in the bottom 5 percent or the bottom 8 percent, whatever. But I believe the standards you're referring to are the reasonable adult standard. And the court has said in other cases that juveniles are not adults. juveniles need a different test."
Berg argued that the state took precautions to protect Dassey, saying they told him he could leave at any time during the first interview.
The question of whether a promise was made to Dassey continued during Nirider's arguments.
One judge said there were no threats to Dassey, he was read his Miranda rights, and his mother was invited to sit in.
The judge asked which tactics used by investigators could have violated Dassey's due process.
NIRIDER: "Those tactics include issuing a promise of leniency to Brendan Dassey."
JUDGE: "There was no promise of leniency. They were vague assurances at best."
NIRIDER: "Not when judged by the standard of an adult--"
JUDGE: "Even with an intellectually challenged 16-year-old. There were no assurances or promises. There has to be a concrete promise, fraudulent promise of leniency for it to bear involuntariness of the confession."
NIRIDER: "There was a very specific and concrete promise of leniency made in this case. 'Honesty will set you free' is what they told him. Now, your honor, it is true, unquestionably true, that you and I would understand that to be a quote from the [Bible] book of John, an idiom. But the record in this case is indisputably clear that idioms are the one thing that Brendan Dassey cannot understand. He has no choice because of his disability."
The judges do not have to issue an opinion immediately. The decision doesn't need to be unanimous. A simple majority will rule.
It's possible the case could go before the U.S. Supreme Court.