School of Law lawyers in ‘Making a Murderer’ case seek Supreme Court action on juvenile false confessions


Daily file photo by Katie Pach

Pritzker School of Law. The lawsuit comes just over a year after the Supreme Court ended the use of affirmative action in the college admission process.

Allie Goulding, Assistant Campus Editor

If the U.S. Supreme Court decides to hear the case of Pritzker lawyer Laura Nirider’s client, Brendan Dassey, it will be the first time the Court has heard a case of a false confession in nearly 40 years, according to a Feb. 20 news release.

For 70 years, Nirider said the courts have had legal obligations to treat confessions by juveniles with “special care.” However, Nirider — co-director of the School of Law’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth — said the Supreme Court has remained silent on the issue.

“While the Court has sat out on the issue of juvenile confessions for decades, we’ve also seen this growing problem of juvenile false confessions,” Nirider said. “This is the time for the Court to reaffirm that these protections need to be in place for kids like Brendan.”

Nirider and School of Law Prof. Steven Drizin, who co-founded the center, represent Dassey, now 28, who was convicted when he was 16. A jury found Dassey and his uncle, Steven Avery, guilty of raping and murdering Teresa Halbach and mutilating her corpse in a Wisconsin court in April 2007.

The case is featured in the 2015 Netflix documentary series, “Making a Murderer.”

Nirider, Drizin and former U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman, who recently joined Dassey’s legal team as a Supreme Court litigation expert, submitted a petition for a writ of certiorari — which requests a higher court to review a lower court’s ruling — to the Supreme Court on Feb. 20.

Dassey’s legal team expects the Supreme Court to consider the decision in late spring, ABC News reported.

Dassey’s conviction was primarily based on four separate two-on-one interrogations over a 48-hour period, according to the petition. Dassey, who has intellectual and social limitations, was fed answers about the crime from the police, the petition alleges.

Nirider said they filed the petition for a writ of certiorari to the Supreme Court because Dassey’s case raises important legal issues that could affect many other juveniles who falsely confess to serious crimes.

DNA evidence has been increasingly used to prove confessions false since it came into use in the 1980s, Nirider said. In cases of rape or murder, Nirider said DNA left on the victim can be tested and prove “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that the wrong person was convicted, and therefore the confession they provided must “scientifically be false.”

“There has been this increasing awareness and this brand new, technology-driven understanding about the probable false confessions,” Nirider said. “Meanwhile, the Supreme Court has been silent on the way in which the law is supposed to protect kids against false confessions.”

After Dassey was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, U.S. Magistrate Judge William Duffin heard Dassey’s case at U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin in August 2016, overturning his conviction and determining that his confession had been coerced. Dassey was ordered to be freed from prison within 90 days, unless prosecutors decided to retry the case.

Two days before Dassey’s release in November 2016, attorneys with the Wisconsin Department of Justice filed an emergency motion with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, asking the court to reverse Duffin’s decision.

The case was heard by a panel of three judges from the Court of Appeals in June 2017, and the panel voted 2-1 to uphold Duffin’s decision. However, about six months later, the full Court of Appeals reheard the case and narrowly reversed the lower court’s decision with a 4-3 vote.

A second “Making a Murderer” season is in the works, the Chicago Tribune reported. Chicago attorney Andy Hale and Ohio filmmaker Shawn Rech are filming a separate follow-up to the Netflix series, titled “Convicting a Murderer,” according to the Tribune.

The February petition notes several instances where the courts have decided that “the greatest care must be taken to assure that (a minor’s confession) was voluntary” and that “mental condition is surely relevant to an individual’s susceptibility to police coercion,” alleging that the full Court of Appeals ignored these precedents in their decision.

The petition argues that the certiorari is warranted in this case to reaffirm the state court’s holdings and “provide guidance on how to apply those holdings so as to minimize false confessions” in the future.

Nirider said students at the School of Law’s Bluhm Legal Clinic have been working on the case every step of the way, like she did 10 years ago when she was Drizin’s student. She added that they help recruit lawyers and write briefs about the case.

Nirider said Dassey’s case was life-changing for her, and it could have “reverberations” across the country if the Supreme Court reaffirms the protections needed for people like Dassey in interrogation rooms.

“Brendan Dassey is one of hundreds of known false confessions,” Nirider said. “Interrogations like this happen in interrogation rooms around the country every day, and we know that courts around the country aren’t doing enough to protect juveniles and the mentally disabled from coercive interrogations. … (The courts) have an obligation under the law to protect kids like Brendan who undergo interrogation.”

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