NORTHEAST WISCONSIN (WBAY) - Nearly 250 renowned legal and political experts and advocates have signed an open letter to Wisconsin's governor requesting clemency for Making A Murderer subject Brendan Dassey.
The list of names includes retired U.S. Government officials, state and federal prosecutors, legal advocates, psychological experts and exonerees. Notable names include Innocence Project co-founder Barry Scheck and Sister Helen Prejean. The anti-death penalty advocate's story is the focus of the movie "Dead Man Walking."
"Each of us feels called upon by our conscience to sign this letter. Many of us believe Brendan Dassey to be wrongly convicted and his statements, which constitute the primary evidence against him, to be unreliable. Many of us believe that the process that led to the conviction of this sixteen-year-old special education student was indefensibly flawed, characterized by egregious defense attorney misconduct. And many of us believe that Brendan’s sentence – life in prison, with no chance of parole until 2048 – is wildly inappropriate. All of us agree that, after serving more than thirteen years in prison and accumulating an exemplary prison record, it is time to bring Brendan Dassey home," reads the letter.
CLICK HERE to read the full letter.
Dassey, now 30, is serving a life sentence for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc County. Dassey's defense team has asked Gov. Tony Evers for two forms of relief--either a pardon or a commutation. A commutation would shorten Dassey's life sentence.
The case shocked Northeast Wisconsin 14 years ago, and has since garnered international attention with two season of the Netflix docu-series "Making A Murderer."
On Oct. 31, 2005, freelance photographer Teresa Halbach disappeared after a trip to photograph a vehicle at the Avery Salvage Yard in Manitowoc County. Investigators say they found Halbach's remains in a burn pit on the Avery property. Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, were arrested and charged with Halbach's murder.
In 2007, a jury found Dassey guilty of 1st Degree Intentional Homicide. He was sentenced to life in prison with a chance at parole in 2048. One of the key elements of the prosecution's case was a confession Dassey gave to detectives. Dassey's current legal team and critics claim Dassey's confession was coerced.
Dassey was 16 at the time of the killing of Teresa Halbach. His attorneys argue investigators used improper techniques while interrogating a juvenile with a low IQ. They say investigators made false promises to Dassey that he'd be released if he told them about the killing.
No physical evidence tied Dassey to the murder. Dassey's attorneys believe he falsely confessed to being part of the crime.
"Not a single piece of evidence tied Brendan to this crime. No DNA, no blood, no hair, no fingerprints, nothing. Not in the [Teresa Halbach's] RAV 4, not in the [Steven Avery's] trailer, not in the garage, not in the burn pit, nowhere," says Dassey attorney Steve Drizin. "True confessors don't need help with their narratives."
Dassey was nearly released from prison after a federal magistrate overturned his conviction in August 2016. Judge William E. Duffin said repeated false promises by detectives, when considered with other factors like Dassey's age, intellectual deficits and the absence of a supportive adult, led him to determine that Dassey's confession was involuntary under the U.S. Constitution.
The state appealed the federal judge's ruling. Eventually, the case landed at the highest court in the land--the United States Supreme Court. The justices declined to hear Dassey's argument.
"Brendan Dassey was a sixteen-year-old, intellectually disabled child when he was taken from his school and subjected to a uniquely and profoundly flawed legal process. That process rightly sought justice for Teresa Halbach, but it wrongly took a confused child’s freedom in payment for her loss. Such a debt can never be justly repaid with the currency of innocence," reads the clemency petition.
In April, Dassey sent a letter to Gov. Evers asking to go home. CLICK HERE to read the Dassey letter.
"I am writing to ask for a pardon because I am innocent and want to go home. If I would get to go home, I would like to get a job involving video games. I would like to help take care of my mom and one day have a son and a daughter of my own," Dassey writes. "I would name my daughter Grace and my son Mizar which is the name of a star in the big dipper."
National advocates for people with disabilities have also written a letter to Gov. Evers in support of clemency for Dassey.
CLICK HERE to read the full letter posted on The Arc website.
"We have deep sympathy for the family and friends of the victim in this case, and we support appropriate punishment of all responsible parties. However, as Mr. Dassey’s attorneys explain in detail in his clemency petition, Mr. Dassey’s record is replete with evidence of intellectual and developmental disabilities and shows that he did not receive proper accommodations during the interrogation process, resulting in a coerced confession. He has now served nearly thirteen years in prison based solely on this unreliable confession," reads the letter.
The clemency petition states: "Brendan Dassey requests that the Board and Governor grant him a full pardon on all three convictions. Based on the extraordinary circumstances shown in this application, Brendan requests a waiver of the rule limiting pardon eligibility to those who have already been released from prison, a waiver previous administrations have permitted. If this Board requires further information in order to
consider this waiver request, undersigned counsel will promptly provide it upon request.
"Should the Governor decline to issue a full pardon on all three convictions, Brendan asks at least for his freedom via a commutation of his remaining sentence(s) to time served with no remaining supervision time. This Board has not, to undersigned counsel’s knowledge, adopted any rules limiting eligibility for commutations."
Dassey has also received high-profile support from prison reform advocate Kim Kardashian West. CLICK HERE to learn about Kardashian's interest in the case.
Gov. Evers recently granted clemency to convicted felons Eric Pizer, Kevin Sorenson, Mwangi Vasser and Steven Nichols. It's the first time a Wisconsin governor has used the power to pardon since 2010.
Action 2 News sat down with Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul and asked him about the Dassey petition.
"I think it's important that the process be one that the governor considers the facts of this case, like he would any case, and that a judgment is made based on all of the relevant facts," says Kaul. "There's been a petition submitted, but I'm sure additional information will be submitted and that the governor will make an appropriate judgment when the time comes."
The Dassey legal team says they have not exhausted their legal options, but they believe this is the best chance for Brendan's freedom.
"Never say never about our ability to go back into the courts, but the time is right. And the governor has this power now," says Dassey attorney Laura Nirider. "Wisconsin has a rich history of issuing pardons and commutations. And it's a tradition that this governor says he's going to return to."
Dassey and Nirider appeared together on the Wrongful Conviction Podcast. CLICK HERE to listen.
Dassey's uncle, Steven Avery, is appealing his conviction in the case. Avery's attorney has filed a 32,241-word brief asking the Wisconsin Appeals court to grant Avery a new trial or evidentiary hearing. CLICK HERE for full coverage of Kathleen Zellner's brief.