The classic “whodunnit” story is one which has endlessly fascinated audiences. In real life, however, such crime mysteries take a dark turn when they highlight the inadequacies of the justice systems tasked with solving them. True crime stories grip audiences, but the thrill of the “whodunnit” often gives way to horror at the crime committed and, in some cases, raises serious questions about miscarriage of justice.
In December 2015, Netflix premiered Making a Murderer, a documentary television series which explored the life of Stephen Avery. Avery came from Manitowoc County, one of 72 counties in the state of Wisconsin. Writers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos came across Avery’s story in November 2005 and spent the next 10 years making a film about his run-ins with the law.
Avery had spent 18 years in prison for sexual assault and attempted murder of Penny Beerntsen, who was attacked and raped by a stranger while running by the beach near her Wisconsin home. This conviction was overturned by DNA evidence in 2003, making Avery one of Wisconsin’s first DNA exonerees. Upon Avery’s release, he filed a $36million civil lawsuit against the county which was settled in January 2016 when the suit was settled for $400,000.
However, this settlement was overshadowed by yet another case, which Avery was embroiled in. Teresa Halbach, a local photographer who was visiting Avery’s scrap yard to take pictures of a car, disappeared in 2005. Her charred remains were found at the yard a week after she went there and Avery was charged with her murder, as was his nephew Brendan Dassey who confessed to helping his uncle commit the crime. Dassey, then 16 years old, was convicted of being party to first-degree intentional homicide, mutilation of a corpse and second-degree sexual assault on April 25 2007.
Brendan’s brother Brad believed he was guilty at the time. However, he later claimed that he “clearly didn’t have all the facts” and should have said “no comment” when asked his opinion on his brother’s guilt. Brad’s change of heart was caused by the Making a Murderer series, which he said opened his eyes to the corruption in Manitowoc County and convinced him of Brendan’s innocence.
Nobody clearly knew all of the corruption back then. It was 10 years in the making with this new Netflix Series and honestly, I’m glad it’s out there. Tons of supporters see what corruption has happened to my brother and are furious of the injustice and that’s all that clearly matters at this point going forward.
In August 2016, Brendan Dassey’s conviction was overturned by a federal judge on the grounds who argued that his confession – the only real evidence against him – was coercively obtained. The judge found that investigators in the 2007 trial assured Dassey that”he had nothing to worry about” and “repeated false promises” to him which worked to coerce his testimony based on factors which made Dassey vulnerable, such as his “age, intellectual deficits, and the absence of a supportive adult”. In November 2016, Federal Judge William Duffin ordered that Dassey should be released within 90 days if the prosecutors did not move forward with a retrial. Days later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit blocked Dassey’s release while the appeal was being heard.
In Chicago on 22 June, the appeal was lost and Dassey’s release was upheld. The court described the method used to get Dassey to confess as “death by a thousand cuts”, with judge David Hamilton saying the decision “breaks new ground and poses troubling questions for police and prosecutors”. The ruling means Dassey could be released in the next 90 days but Johnny Koremenos, a spokesman for Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel, has told Reuters that another appeal is likely.
We anticipate seeking review by the entire Seventh Circuit or the United States Supreme Court and hope that today’s erroneous decision will be reversed.
It remains to be seen whether this will be the final chapter in a sordid story of murder and wrongful convictions which has forever changed the lives of all involved. Whether this decision will finally lead to Dassey’s freedom will depend on the prosecution’s next move, which many observers will be closely watching.