‘Making a Murderer’ Defendant’s Win Reversed, Next Stop SCOTUS

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By Jordan S. Rubin

‘Making a Murderer’ documentary subject Brendan Dassey shouldn’t have gotten habeas relief, a sharply divided 4-3 panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit held Dec. 8.

Ending Dassey’s hopes of upending his life sentence—unless the U.S. Supreme Court steps in—the majority emphasized the deference federal courts must give to state court judgments when reviewing them in habeas proceedings. Under the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, federal habeas courts must uphold state rulings unless they unreasonably applied Supreme Court precedent or took an unreasonable view of the facts.

“We intend to continue pursuing relief for Brendan, including through a petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court,” Dassey’s lawyers Laura Nirider and Steven Drizin said in a statement published on the website of Northwestern Pritzker School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. Drizin is clinical professor of law and co-founder of the center; Nirider is clinical assistant professor of law and project co-director there.

Standard Favors the State

The Netflix documentary brought national attention to the prosecution and conviction of Dassey and his uncle, Steven Avery, for the 2005 rape and murder of Teresa Halbach and the mutilation of her corpse.

Dassey, then a juvenile, confessed to helping Avery. The Wisconsin trial court allowed the confession to come into evidence despite concerns about its voluntariness, and the state appeals court affirmed the ruling.

After his convictions were upheld in state court, the federal district court granted Dassey’s habeas challenge to the state court’s confession finding, and an earlier Seventh Circuit panel affirmed in a 2-1 opinion.

But the state court decision wasn’t unreasonable, the en banc majority said in an opinion by Judge David F. Hamilton.

Supreme Court precedent says that a confession’s voluntariness is measured by the totality of the circumstances, the court said here, surveying several of the high court’s confession cases.

In this case, some factors—like Dassey’s youth and limited intellectual ability—favor a finding that the confession was involuntary, the court said.

But other factors pointed in the direction of voluntariness. Applying the totality of the circumstances standard in the deferential manner required means the district court and three-judge Seventh Circuit panel were wrong to find the state court judgment unreasonable, it said.

“Dassey simply has not pointed to Supreme Court precedent that mandates relief under these circumstances,” the court said.

Judges Frank H. Easterbrook, Michael S. Kanne, and Diane S. Sykes joined the opinion.

Sharp Dissents

Chief Judge Diane P. Wood dissented, joined by Judges Ilana Diamond Rovner and Ann Claire Williams.

The ruling against Dassey here is a “travesty of justice” that turns “a blind eye” to the “glaring faults” in the case, Wood said.

Supreme Court precedent requires juvenile confessions be handled with special care, something the state courts and the majority here didn’t do, she said.

Dassey’s confession was coerced and shouldn’t have been admitted into evidence, she said. Now he’ll “spend the rest of his life in prison because of the injustice this court has decided to leave unredressed,” she said.

Rovner wrote her own dissent, joined by Wood and Williams. She wrote separately in an effort to “convince my colleagues throughout the courts that reform of our understanding of coercion is long overdue.”

Dassey’s “confession was not voluntary and his conviction should not stand, and yet an impaired teenager has been sentenced to life in prison,” Rovner said.

The majority’s decision “has worked a profound injustice,” she said.

Next Stop: SCOTUS

“Today’s ruling contravenes a fundamental and time-honored position of the United States Supreme Court: interrogation tactics that may not be coercive when applied to adults are coercive when applied to children and the mentally impaired,” Nirider and Drizin said in the statement.

“Indeed, when such tactics are applied to vulnerable populations, the risk of false confession grows intolerably. Unfortunately, this time-worn lesson was ignored today by four judges in the case of Brendan Dassey,” they said.

In a statement provided to Bloomberg Law by Wisconsin Department of Justice communications director Johnny Koremenos, the Wisconsin Attorney General Brad D. Schimel said he’s “gratified that the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of habeas.”

The Seventh Circuit en banc decision “is a testament to the talent of the attorneys at the Wisconsin Department of Justice who have worked tirelessly to deliver justice for the family and friends of Teresa Halbach over the last decade,” he said.

The case is Dassey v. Dittmann , 7th Cir., No. 16-3397, 2017 BL 439645, 12/8/17 .

To contact the reporter on this story: Jordan S. Rubin in Washington at jrubin@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: C. Reilly Larson at rlarson@bloomberglaw.com

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