Supreme Court won't hear the case of Brendan Dassey, sentenced to life as a teen and featured in 'Making a Murderer'
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court on Monday turned down a plea to intervene in the case of Brendan Dassey, whose confession to rape and murder as a teenager was portrayed as coerced in the popular Netflix documentary "Making a Murderer."
As is customary, the court gave no reason for denying the petition of Dassey, who now is in his late 20s and is serving a sentence of life in prison.
Dassey was convicted in 2007 of the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. Two years earlier, Dassey had confessed to authorities that he assisted his uncle, Steven Avery, in the rape and killing of Halbach. Her charred body was found on Avery's property.
Dassey was interrogated four times over a 48-hour period, and the videotapes - also delivered to the Supreme Court - appear to show investigators giving Dassey facts about the killing that he does not seem to know.
Lawyers for Dassey told the court that words "cannot adequately convey what transpired here; for that the court should review the video of Dassey's interrogations. . . It can then draw its own conclusion about whether the interrogators improperly coerced a juvenile with significant intellectual and social limitations."
The Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld Dassey's conviction, saying the interrogation was not unduly coercive. Dassey had been read his rights, and his mother consented to the interview. Dassey did not have a lawyer present.
When Dassey appealed to federal court, a magistrate ruled in his favor, and a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit upheld the decision on a 2-to-1 vote.
But the full appeals court overturned that panel decision on a 4-to-3 vote in December.
"Dassey spoke with the interrogators freely, after receiving and understanding Miranda warnings, and with his mother's consent," Judge David Hamilton wrote. "The interrogation took place in a comfortable setting, without any physical coercion or intimidation, without even raised voices, and over a relatively brief time. Dassey provided many of the most damning details himself in response to open-ended questions."
The three dissenting judges called the decision "a profound miscarriage of justice."
"What occurred here was the interrogation of an intellectually impaired juvenile," wrote Judge Ilana Rovner. "Dassey was subjected to myriad psychologically coercive techniques, but the state court did not review his interrogation with the special care required by Supreme Court precedent."
Dassey was represented at the Supreme Court by prominent Supreme Court practitioner Seth Waxman, a former U.S. solicitor general. He recruited an impressive lineup of former prosecutors and psychologists who told the justices that the interrogation was improper, and that the court should take the case to clarify how juveniles, who can be easily manipulated and coerced, should be questioned.
But Wisconsin defended the conviction, and said Dassey's case was not a good vehicle for the court to review the issue of juvenile interrogations.
Under federal law, the Supreme Court is to largely defer to decisions made by lower courts, and to intervene only if the decision by the state court was unreasonable.
Wisconsin said the state court followed Supreme Court precedent by looking at the totality of the circumstances, and denied that investigators had fed Dassey the facts of the crime to which he confessed.
At the beginning of the interrogation, the state said in its brief, investigators thought of Dassey only as a witness to the crime.
But Dassey "unexpectedly confessed to investigators that, at his uncle's urging, he had raped the victim while she was tied up in bed and begging for mercy, and soon thereafter confessed to helping kill her and burn her body," wrote state solicitor general Misha Tseytlin. "Petitioner now asserts that investigators fed him this confession, but the only plausible source for his admissions was his guilty conscience."
The case is Dassey v. Dittmann.
Author information: Robert Barnes has been a Washington Post reporter and editor since 1987. He joined The Post to cover Maryland politics, and he has served in various editing positions, including metropolitan editor and national political editor. He has covered the Supreme Court since November 2006.