In a decision issued Thursday, a three-judge federal appeals panel upheld a lower court ruling that the confession of Brendan Dassey — whose case was the focus of Netflix’s hit true crime documentary series Making a Murderer — had been illegally obtained and that the 27-year-old should be retried for the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach or freed from his confinement, PEOPLE confirms.
Dassey is serving a life sentence for first-degree intentional homicide, mutilation of a corpse and sexual assault in connection with Halbach’s death in 2005.
The case drew national attention after the premiere of Netflix’s docuseries, which cast a critical light on the investigation and the convictions of both Dassey and his uncle Steven Avery in Halbach’s murder. Her family has rebuked the show, claiming it was one-sided.
The panel, from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said Thursday that Dassey should be released unless he is retried within 90 days or the state appeals further, which they have said they will.
The panel’s ruling affirms a decision last August, in which Judge William Duffin tossed Dassey’s conviction and characterized the “misconduct” of Dassey’s first attorney as “indefensible.” His decision also suggested he had “significant doubts” concerning the reliability of Dassey’s confession.
Duffin ruled that authorities had inappropriately promised the then-16-year-old leniency in exchange for his confession. Soon after, the state challenged Duffin’s ruling, and was subsequently granted an emergency motion to stay Dassey’s release pending their appeal.
Though Dassey will remain in custody until the state’s appeal is resolved, potentially by the U.S. Supreme Court, his attorneys Laura Nirider and Steven Drizin described the panel’s ruling as victory.
“The battle to secure Brendan’s freedom is not yet over, but today’s decision represents a giant leap forward for Brendan and for justice for Brendan and his family,” Drizin said in a video statement Thursday night.
A statement from Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel confirmed his office will be seeking a full review of the ruling by the Chicago-based appellate court’s nine judges.
“[We] hope that today’s erroneous decision will be reversed,” a spokesman for the state’s department of justice told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “We continue to send our condolences to the Halbach family as they have to suffer through another attempt by Mr. Dassey to re-litigate his guilty verdict and sentence.”
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Dassey’s confession to law enforcement is perhaps the most debated aspect of Making a Murderer. During two separate police interrogations, he confessed to helping Avery, his uncle, rape and kill Halbach, 25, who went missing on Oct. 31, 2005.
Avery was also sentenced to life after being convicted of first-degree intentional homicide in a separate trial. Dassey later recanted, claiming his confession had been coerced.
Thursday’s decision from the three-judge panel was split, with Judges Ilana Rovner and Ann Williams in the majority and Judge David Hamilton Hamilton dissenting.
“The majority’s decision breaks new ground and poses troubling questions for police and prosecutors,” Hamilton wrote. “It calls into question standard interrogation techniques that courts have routinely found permissible, even in cases involving juveniles.”
However, Rovner countered that “no reasonable court” would ever have believed Dassey’s confession was provided to police voluntarily. The majority found that as authorities were interrogating him, they fed vital case information to Dassey and actively manipulated his “desire to please” authority figures.
Timeline of the Confession
On the day Dassey confessed, lead investigators Tom Fassbender and Mark Wiegert pulled him out of school and questioned him alone for hours. During that questioning, Dassey told investigators he had helped his uncle kill Halbach, saying that they shot her in the head and burned her body at a bonfire on the Avery property later that evening.
Calumet County Prosecutor Ken Kratz called a news conference shortly after investigators secured the confession, saying that Dassey described in detail Halbach’s brutal assault and slaying. However, after seeing portions of the confession on Netflix, many came to believe he was led by Fassbender and Wiegert, who repeatedly questioned him until the teen gave them a confession.
In a recorded exchange with his mother, Barb Janda, following the confession, Dassey said, “They got in my head.”
The teen later denied that he ever saw Halbach and said he had nothing to do with her murder.
A second season of Making a Murderer is now in production.
A GoFundMe campaign launched by Dassey’s mother has raised nearly more than $16,000 to help him readjust to life outside of prison.