Brendan Dassey case shines spotlight on Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth

Benjamin Din, Digital Projects Editor

Nine years ago, 16-year-old Brendan Dassey was convicted for his involvement in the murder of Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. His lawyers at Northwestern’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth contend his confession was coerced and he was wrongfully convicted.

School of Law professors Steven Drizin and Laura Nirider, along with Milwaukee-based attorney Robert Dvorak, are representing Dassey as he goes through his post-conviction litigation. Dassey’s 2007 conviction has resurfaced in the past few weeks with the debut of the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer.” The documentary follows Dassey and his uncle Steven Avery, who were both convicted of the 2005 murder of Halbach.

Avery was charged with murdering Halbach, a photographer who was last seen taking photos for Auto Trader magazine at the Avery Salvage Yard. In 2006, while Avery’s trial was ongoing, Dassey confessed to his involvement in the murder, a statement he later retracted. Despite this, Dassey was convicted on all counts, which included sexual assault and mutilation of a corpse.

The documentary series highlights issues Dassey faced throughout his trial, including intense media coverage, insufficient legal representation and coercive interrogation tactics used to elicit a confession.

Since the conviction, Dassey has maintained his innocence and exhausted all of his appeals in the Wisconsin state court system. Drizin (School of Law ‘86) said Dassey is currently awaiting a decision on his appeal in front of a Wisconsin federal district court judge and expects a ruling that could vacate Dassey’s state court conviction and grant him a new trial to come out some time in 2016.

Dassey is currently serving a life sentence in Wisconsin with the possibility of parole in 2048.

In the past few weeks, the documentary has incited people to create online petitions asking for exoneration for Avery and Dassey, including one directed to the White House asking the president to pardon the two. This month, the petition, which currently has just under 130,000 signatures, met the 100,000 signature threshold required for the White House to respond to it. However, the case does not fall under the president’s jurisdiction, according to a statement from the White House.

“Since Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are both state prisoners, the President cannot pardon them,” the statement said. “A pardon in this case would need to be issued at the state level by the appropriate authorities.”

Although Drizin doesn’t expect the documentary or the ensuing public response to influence the federal court’s decision, he said the attitudes toward the case have changed.

“Cases are decided in a context,” Drizin said. “When Brendan was convicted, he and his uncle were evil incarnate, the two most hated people in the state of Wisconsin. Now that his case is being heard in federal court, I think there is a different view of him and whether or not he was treated fairly by the justice system.”

Since the release of the documentary, Drizin said the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth has received many emails and phone calls regarding the case.

“Lots of people want to volunteer for the center, and people want to know how they can help,” he said. “That’s a real testament to the power of this film.”

For “Making a Murderer” viewers who want to help, Drizin said the center has created an action agenda with further steps to help prevent others from going through Dassey’s experience.

The center, which is housed in Pritzker School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic, was co-founded by Drizin in 2008. It was the first of its kind to address wrongful convictions of youth, and has developed an expertise in litigating cases of false confessions. Since then, a few more organizations with similar missions have opened, said Megan Crane, project co-director at the center.

Drizin said it is important to have a center specifically focused on youth, because they process things differently than adults. He said developmental differences between youth and adults make youth more vulnerable to police pressure than adults, and more likely to falsely confess to crimes.

Through its work, the center focuses on post-conviction cases, where the defense has to prove there was either a procedural defect or provide new evidence that wasn’t available at the time of the trial, Crane said.

The main basis of Dassey’s post-conviction appeals focuses on a procedural defect known as ineffective assistance of counsel. Dassey’s former lawyer, Len Kachinsky, did not adequately represent Dassey even when Dassey insisted upon his innocence, Drizin said.

“(Kachinsky) essentially decided to work with the prosecution to pressure his own client, Brendan Dassey, into testifying against his uncle Steven Avery, and went to extraordinary lengths to make that happen,” he said.

As well as representing clients such as Dassey, the center also advocates for policy reform, provides trainings for law enforcement and files amicus briefs to support other cases that it is not directly involved in. One of the main policies that the center fights for is electronic recording of interrogations, Crane said.

“In ‘Making a Murderer,’ it’s particularly relevant because Wisconsin had just passed their law requiring video recording of interrogations,” she said. “Steve Drizin was part of that lobbying effort to get that law passed, and that’s the only reason we have Brendan on video.”

The video-taped confession helped show how detectives coerced Dassey by feeding him information that only the person who committed the crime would know, instead of allowing Dassey to provide that information to detectives on his own, which Crane called “contamination of the confession.”

In addition to casework and policy work, the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth also provides opportunities for second- and third-year law students to work at the organization.

Katie Marie Zouhary (School of Law ‘11), a former student who worked at the center, said she was interested in getting involved because of its reputation on issues of justice and the quality of professors such as Drizin and Nirider (School of Law ‘08).

Zouhary worked on exonerating a member of the Englewood Four, four teenagers wrongly convicted of rape and murder in 1994. Seeing him walk outside as a free man for the first time since he was a teenager is a moment she will never forget, she said.

“I’ve often said I’m afraid my most meaningful legal work happened before I became a lawyer because my work at the clinic has been the most individually impactful work that I have done,” she said.

Ultimately, Drizin said he hopes the attention “Making a Murderer” has brought to Dassey’s case will shed more light on wrongful convictions of youth, as Dassey’s situation is not unique.

“That’s the saddest part,” Drizin said. “My hope is that this documentary will inspire some profound changes in the way in which police interrogate youthful suspects.”

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Twitter: @benjamindin