Arguing that there was “nothing wrong” with the controversial police interrogation that led to his imprisonment, HLN host Nancy Grace said this week that she’s unhappy with a judge who overturned the conviction of Brendan Dassey, a young man featured in the Netflix documentary series “Making A Murderer.”
“Tell me what is was wrong with that interrogation,” Grace said on her eponymous show Monday night. “Because I saw nothing was wrong with it.”
The federal judge in question, William Duffin of the Eastern District of Wisconsin, had a different view of the interrogation, which took place in 2006, when Dassey was a teenager.
In that interview, Dassey was being questioned about the slaying of Teresa Halbach, a photographer. After an excruciating, four-hour interrogation without a parent or a lawyer present ― a session that critics say involved flawed police tactics with investigators posing leading questions ― Dassey told detectives that he had raped and brutalized Halbach. Dassey later recanted his confession, but his conviction largely hinged on that admission.
Last week, Duffin overturned Dassey’s conviction, ruling that it had been made involuntarily.
Grace expressed disbelief about this on Monday, but her guest, attorney David Bruno, wasn’t having it.
“I hate to break it to you... but this is not a new rule of law,” Bruno said. “Statements have to be voluntary.”
“What’s changed here is that we now get to see videos of how police conduct themselves in providing Miranda [rights], and various other promises and pressures, when they have defendants in custody,” he went on.
Grace, seemingly incredulous, pressed Bruno, asking again what had been wrong with the cops’ interrogation of Dassey. She also said that Dassey wasn’t “mentally ill” and that his IQ is in the “average range.”
Bruno replied that issue of whether a statement was given voluntarily or not goes far beyond those factors.
“It’s the overall, the totality of the circumstances,” Bruno said. “It’s the age, it’s the intellect, it is the promises.”
Dassey, who is now 26, was sentenced to life without parole in 2007 on homicide and sexual assault charges. Dassey is the nephew of Steven Avery, the Wisconsin man at the center of the Netflix series. Avery was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault in 1985 and eventually exonerated — only to be convicted of Halbach’s murder years later under circumstances that critics have maintained are suspicious.
During the time of the police interrogation in question, Dassey was 16 years old. According to court records, he had an IQ of somewhere between 69 and 73; an IQ of 70 is often considered the threshold for intellectual disability.
Dassey made a confession during that interrogation, but research has shown that teens are extremely susceptible to admitting to crimes they didn’t commit. A 2003 study found that teenagers were far more likely than young adults to falsely confess. And in an analysis of hundreds of cases going back to 1989, false confessions were found to be one of the leading causes of wrongful conviction, according to the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal clinic. Overall, about 31 percent of wrongful conviction cases examined by the Innocence Project included a false confession. Among homicide cases, that number ballooned to 63 percent.
In his petition for release, Dassey argued, among other things, that his confession had been coerced by law enforcement and that investigators had made him false promises. In his ruling Friday, Duffin agreed, saying that Dassey’s confession to the cops was “clearly involuntary in a constitutional sense.” He also offered a harsh indictment of Wisconsin’s criminal justice system, calling Dassey’s case an instance of “extreme malfunction.”
“The investigators’ collective statements throughout the interrogation clearly led Dassey to believe that he would not be punished for telling them the incriminating details they professed to already know,” Duffin wrote in his ruling. He pointed out that an investigator, at one point, told Dassey “we can’t make any promises.” But, Duffin said, this was only a lone remark that got “drowned out by the host of assurances that they already knew what happened and that Dassey had nothing to worry about.”
Duffin also cited the totality of the circumstances in the case as the relevant factor that led to his ruling.
“Especially when the investigators’ promises, assurances, and threats of negative consequences are assessed in conjunction with Dassey’s age, intellectual deficits, lack of experience in dealing with the police, the absence of a parent, and other relevant personal characteristics, the free will of a reasonable person in Dassey’s position would have been overborne,” Duffin wrote. “Once considered in this proper light, the conclusion that Dassey’s statement was involuntary under the totality of the circumstances is not one about which ‘fairminded jurists could disagree.’”