Dassey v. Dittmann
U.S. District Court, E. D. Wisconsin, Case No. 14-CV-1310 (August 12, 2016)
Magistrate Judge William E. Duffin
In a 91-page opinion linked here, a federal court in Wisconsin has granted the habeas corpus petition of one of the men featured in “Making a Murderer.” Brendan Dassey, the young nephew of primary defendant Steven Avery, has had his state-court conviction set aside because the police who interviewed or interrogated him crossed a line, causing his statements to them to be constitutionally involuntary. Although it did “not reach this conclusion lightly,” the federal court found “that this case represents the sort of ‘extreme malfunction[] in the state criminal justice system[]’ that federal habeas corpus relief exists to correct.”

The court denied Dassey’s request for relief based on the misconduct or ineffective assistance of his original counsel Leonard Kachinsky—who, among other things, allowed Dassey to be interrogated without counsel present—at least in part because of the particular legal theory Dassey’s habeas counsel elected to pursue on this issue. But the court concluded the tactics and methodology employed by the officers in Dassey’s interrogation, in the context of all the relevant circumstances, “overbore” Dassey’s free will and rendered his statements to the police involuntary, which required his conviction to be vacated. In the court’s words: “The investigators repeatedly claimed to already know what happened … and assured Dassey that he had nothing to worry about. These repeated false promises, when considered in conjunction with all relevant factors, most especially Dassey’s age, intellectual deficits, and the absence of a supportive adult, rendered Dassey’s confession involuntary under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals’ decision to the contrary was an unreasonable application of clearly established federal law.”

The State of Wisconsin has the right to appeal this decision, and the federal court provided that if it does so, the habeas order will be stayed pending the outcome of that appeal. In the absence of an appeal, however, the order directs that the State “release Dassey from custody unless, within 90 days of the date of this decision, the State initiates proceedings to retry him.”