A federal judge in Milwaukee has overturned the conviction of Brendan Dassey, the young man whose case was one of two documented in the Netflix series “Making a Murderer."
Judge William E. Duffin found that investigators repeatedly made false promises to Dassey, who was 16 years old and a slow learner, in extracting a confession, which Dassey's legal team had maintained was coerced. The judge found that confession was involuntary in a 91-page decision handed down Friday.
Dassey’s case was one of two followed in the popular “Making a Murderer” series, which depicts the story of Dassey’s uncle, Steven Avery. Dassey and Avery were sentenced to life for the 2005 murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach.
Dassey's attorney, Steve Drizin with Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, confirmed the news Friday.
"I am just beyond excited," Drizin said. "I had to pick myself up off the floor."
Duffin ordered Dassey be set free unless the state initiates a retrial proceeding in 90 days.
That, or an appeal of the decision, would put Dassey's release on hold, Drizin said. He and the legal team would then seek to have him released on bond.
"A lot's going to depend on what the state does here," he said.
The Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth legal team, based in Chicago, first took Dassey’s case to federal court in Wisconsin in 2014 in hopes that he would be granted a writ of Habeas corpus, which would have forced the government to examine his case and rule whether he has been imprisoned illegally.
Dassey was arrested at the age of 16 in connection with case, but his attorneys maintained his confession was coerced.
Avery, a Wisconsin man who was imprisoned for 18 years for sexual assault before DNA evidence exonerated him in 2003, was accused of Halbach's murder as he was suing Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, the former district attorney and the county sheriff for wrongful imprisonment, seeking $36 million in damages.
Most recently, the show's filmmakers said a juror from Avery's murder trial claims he was not proven guilty, but the juror had voted to convict him out of fear for his/her personal safety. The two filmmakers have not yet contacted other jurors to independently verify the claim, they said. NBC News has not independently verified the allegation with any jurors.
Steven Drizin, a clinical professor at Northwestern University School of Law who is among the attorneys representing Dassey, said his team of lawyers from the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern, and Wisconsin attorney Robert Dvorak, have spent years on the case.
Drizin said the team investigated Dassey’s case for two years before filing an appeal in 2010. The appeal was ultimately denied by a state appellate court and the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
The habeas petition was filed in federal court in the Eastern District of Wisconsin in 2014.
“We’re hopeful is what I would say,” Drizin said at the time. “The deeper you go into this system, whether it’s in the state court system or the federal court system, the harder it is to win. We’ve won cases in federal court before and we’re hoping that this is another one that we’ll win.”
Drizin said the petition focused largely on Dassey’s original public defender, Len Kachinsky, who was ultimately removed from the case.
“A lot of our appeal has to do with the actions that Brendan’s original attorney Len Kachinsky took, which demonstrated his disloyalty to Brendan and his willingness to work with the prosecution to try to get Brendan to plead guilty and testify against Steven Avery,” Drizin said.
He also maintains that Dassey’s confession was coerced “by [investigators] feeding him facts.”
“To me, this case is a classic example of how not to interrogate juvenile suspects and the tactics that were used during Brendan’s interrogation are a recipe for false confessions,” he said.
In a brief filed last year, the state argued Dassey failed to show that the appeals court’s decision was unreasonable.
“[Investigators] merely stated, in calm tones, that they ‘already knew’ what happened and allowed Dassey to confess that he had raped Halbach, and was involved in her murder,” the brief reads. “Dassey’s confession was not coerced, and the state court’s decision on Dassey’s voluntariness claim did not involve an unreasonable application of clearly established Federal law.”
Former Calamut County District Attorney Ken Kratz, who prosecuted Dassey and Avery, recently told People magazine that he has "a great bit of sympathy" for Dassey, who he said "never would have been involved in this except for his uncle."
Dassey would have been out sooner if he had taken a plea bargain, Kratz said.
Drizin said while “Making a Murderer” has put Dassey’s case in the national spotlight, he didn't believe it would have an impact on the judge’s decision.
“I don’t think that the Netflix movie is going to influence a federal judge, but at the same time, judges are human beings and the Netflix film has created a context for Brendan’s case that didn’t exist at the time of his trial or his appeals,” he said.