State attorneys tried to persuade a panel of federal appellate judges that a Wisconsin inmate featured in the Netflix series "Making a Murderer" made a voluntary confession and was properly convicted.
Brendan Dassey was sentenced to life in prison in 2007 in connection with Teresa Halbach's death two years earlier. Dassey told detectives he helped his uncle, Steven Avery, rape and kill Halbach in the Avery family's Manitowoc County salvage yard. Avery was sentenced to life in prison in a separate trial.
A federal magistrate judge overturned Dassey's conviction in August, ruling investigators took advantage of the then-16-year-old Dassey's cognitive disabilities and tricked him into confessing with false promises that he would be all right. The state Department of Justice appealed.
Attorneys for both DOJ and Dassey presented oral arguments to a three-judge panel at the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago on Tuesday.
DOJ Deputy Solicitor General Luke Berg told the panel detectives never made Dassey any specific promises. Judge Ilana Rovner asked whether Dassey, whom the judge described as "extremely suggestible," wouldn't have concluded based on the questioning that he would be able to go home rather than getting arrested.
Berg insisted the investigators acted properly and didn't so much as imply promises. Judge David Hamilton seemed to dispute that, telling Berg that obviously the investigators made vague promises of leniency.
Dassey's attorney, Laura Nirider, argued the detectives made a "drumbeat of promises" before every major admission in the confession. Hamilton, though, told her he had watched the entire interrogation and didn't think Dassey's will was subverted.
The arguments lasted less than an hour. The panel has no time table for a decision and it could be months before they rule.
Dassey, now 27, and Avery have contended police framed them. They say police went after them to stop a lawsuit Avery had filed demanding millions from Manitowoc County because he spent 18 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit. Avery is pursuing his own appeal.
In November, Judge William E. Duffin ordered that Dassey be freed from prison unless prosecutors appealed or decided to retry him.
A few days later, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel filed an emergency motion in the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals seeking a stay of the judge's ruling. The court blocked Dassey's release while considering the appeal. Dassey remains in prison pending the outcome.
In Schimel's filed brief, he urged the appeals court to reject Dassey's claim that his confession was coerced.
"Substantial police coercion" is required for any confession to be ruled involuntary, Schmel said. He added that the Wisconsin Court of Appeals was right to affirm in 2013 that Dassey's confession was voluntary.
The magistrate's ruling "ignores both the facts and the law," the attorney general said. Investigators didn't promise leniency, he said, and specifically told Dassey they couldn't make any promises.
The teenager willingly spoke with investigators and was properly informed of his rights, Schimel said. The interview took a few hours in the middle of the day, while Dassey sat on a couch and drank a soda, the investigators spoke in normal tones and did not threaten him or make false promises, he said. And Dassey confessed to most of the important details within an hour, in response to open-ended questions, he added.
"The state courts' conclusion that Dassey's confession was voluntary is not only reasonable; it is entirely correct. Accordingly, Dassey is not entitled to relief," the attorney general said.
Halbach was killed on Halloween 2005, after she visited the Avery family's salvage yard in Manitowoc County. Investigators allege Avery lured her there by asking her to take photos of a minivan.
Dassey was sentenced to life in prison in 2007. Court documents describe him as a slow learner who had poor grades and has difficulty understanding language and speaking.
Avery was convicted in a separate trial and was also sentenced to life in prison. He's pursuing his own appeal.
Their cases gained national attention after Netflix aired "Making a Murderer" in 2015. The series spawned widespread conjecture about the pair's innocence. Authorities who worked on the cases said the series was biased, but it generated a myriad of calls from the public to free both men.