Brendan Dassey conviction overturned in Halbach murder

Brendan Dassey prison mug shot
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Originally published August 12, 2016 MILWAUKEE, Wis. (WBAY) - A federal court in Milwaukee has overturned Brendan Dassey's murder conviction.

U.S. Magistrate Judge William Duffin ordered Dassey be released from custody unless the state appeals or retries the case within 90 days of Friday's ruling. Sources tell Action 2 News Dassey will not be released until the appeals process is finished. Dassey is currently serving his sentence at a prison in Portage County. He has been incarcerated for about 10 years.

Dassey was previously sentenced for the 2005 murder of freelance photographer Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc County. His uncle Steven Avery was also convicted in the murder. Avery is currently appealing his own case. The case garnered national attention following the release of the Netflix documentary "Making a Murderer."

Judge Duffin was asked to weigh in on two issues surrounding Dassey's case: his confession to the murder and whether he had ineffective lawyers. The court did not rule that he had ineffective lawyers but found issues with his confession. Court documents say investigators used leading questions when interrogating Dassey, which made it difficult for them to tell if he really knew the facts, or if he was agreeing with investigators. They believe investigators repeatedly claimed to already know what happened in Halbach's death and that Dassey had nothing to worry about.

The decision states the repeated false promises, when considered with other factors like Dassey's age, intellectual deficits and the absence of a supportive adult, led a judge to determine that Dassey's confession was involuntary under the U.S. Constitution. Dassey was 16 when Halbach was killed. Court records show he also had an IQ of 74 and was taking special education classes in high school.

"It is the conclusion of the court that this case represents the sort of extreme malfunction in the state criminal justice system," Judge Duffin wrote in his ruling.

Northwestern Pritzker School of Law professors Steven A. Drizin and Laura Nirider have served as two of Dassey's attorneys throughout the appellate process. They issued a lengthy statement on Northwestern University's website. It said in part:

The Court’s decision rests on a fundamental principle that is too often forgotten by courts and law enforcement officers: interrogation tactics which may not be coercive when used on adults are coercive when used on juveniles, particularly young people like Brendan with disabilities. And when these tactics are used on juveniles, the risk that a young suspect will give a false confession increases exponentially."
-Steven A. Drizin and Laura Nirider

The Wisconsin Department of Justice says it is currently reviewing Judge Duffin's ruling and will not comment at this time.

The Manitowoc County Sheriff's Office says it will issue a news release at a later time.

The Calumet County Sheriff's Office says it's aware of the court decision and will defer comments to the Wisconsin DOJ.

The special prosecutor in Avery's criminal trial, Ken Kratz, declined an interview request from Action 2 News.

Avery's family says they are hopeful on what Dassey's ruling means for them.

Avery's former defense team is commenting on the judge's decision. Here's what Dean Strang and Jerome Buting had to say:

Jerry and I are relieved and gratified that a federal judge, in a thoughtful, 91-page opinion, has found Brendan Dassey’s statements to law enforcement on March 1, 2006, involuntary. Brendan’s statements were involuntary – by the standards of common sense and decency that most Americans apply in their own lives, as well as under binding law that the Wisconsin courts repeatedly failed to apply. His statements were also wholly unreliable and flatly wrong on essential details, which is one of the obvious risks of coercing a statement from someone in custody. Our federal courts are often the last protectors of our liberties and justice. We are thankful and proud that a federal court fulfilled its fundamental role for Brendan Dassey today. In doing so, this federal court served all Americans." -Dean Strang

Avery's new lawyer, Kathleen Zellner, was visiting Avery in Wisconsin Friday and had this to say about the decision:

“We are thrilled for Brendan Dassey that his conviction has been overturned. We fully expected this outcome from an unbiased court that carefully examined his confession. I was just visiting Steven Avery and he is so happy for Brendan. We know when an unbiased court reviews all of the new evidence we have, Steven will have his conviction overturned as well.” -Kathleen Zellner

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