Prosecutors Contest Overturned Conviction in 'Making a Murderer' Case: 'Brendan Dassey Chose to Confess'

Lawyers for Steven Avery's nephew Brendan Dassey argue his confession was coerced by promises of leniency

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Photo: Eric Young, Pool/AP

The fate of Brendan Dassey now rests with a trio of federal appeals judges.

During a brief hearing Tuesday in Chicago, Wisconsin prosecutors appeared before the panel to appeal a judge’s August decision overturning Dassey’s conviction for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach. The convictions of Dassey and his uncle, Steven Avery, were featured in Netflix’s true crime docuseries, Making a Murderer.

The lawyers fielded a number of questions from U.S. Circuit Judges Ilana Rovner, Ann Williams, and David Hamilton. Most of the judges’ questions centered around the techniques investigators used during Dassey’s controversial interrogation in 2006, during which the then-16-year-old confessed.

In his confession, Dassey said he helped Avery rape and murder Halbach on Oct. 31, 2005. But he later recanted, claiming the confession had been coerced.

Dassey’s confession to law enforcement is perhaps the most debated aspect of Making a Murderer.

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On the day of the confession, lead investigators Tom Fassbender and Mark Wiegert pulled Dassey out of school and questioned him alone for hours. Dassey is described by multiple people in the series as having learning disabilities, and on Tuesday, his own lawyer, Laura Nirider, referred to him as “mentally limited.”

During the 2006 interrogation, Dassey told investigators he and Avery shot Halbach in the head and burned her body in a bonfire on the Avery property later that evening.

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Dan Powers/Post-Cresent/AP

Calumet County Prosecutor Ken Kratz called a news conference shortly after investigators obtained the confession, saying that Dassey described in detail Halbach’s brutal assault and slaying.

However, after seeing portions of the confession on Netflix, many people came to believe he was goaded by Fassbender and Wiegert, who repeatedly question him until the teen gives them a confession.

In a recorded exchange with his mother, Barb Janda, following the confession, Dassey says, “They got in my head.” The teen later denied that he ever saw Halbach and said he had nothing to do with her death.

After a judge overturned Dassey’s conviction last August, Wisconsin prosecutors immediately appealed the ruling.

During Tuesday’s hearing, Nirider argued that her client’s confession had been coerced by interrogators who repeatedly made “false promises of leniency” as they tried to ensure Dassey’s cooperation.

Footage from his videotaped confession shows investigators telling Dassey they were on his side — that they believed he had nothing to with Halbach’s killing. They can also be seen in the footage pressing him for more details. Dassey’s lawyers maintain his confession was based on information investigators fed to him.

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But Deputy Solicitor General Luke Berg have insisted the confession was legitimate, noting that the investigators who had questioned him about Halbach’s murder never made any explicit promises. Before confessing his alleged role in the killing, Dassey was handled by investigators as a witness and not a suspect, Berg said.

“Brendan Dassey chose to confess, to release those terrible images of Teresa Halbach that were haunting him,” Berg said Tuesday. “The investigators encouraged him to get it out but did not apply any improper pressure.”

If the three judges decide Dassey was unfairly convicted, the state will have to decide whether to put Dassey on trial again for Halbach’s murder or to free him.

A written decision is expected from the court but could take several months.

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Halbach Family/Herald Times Reporter/AP

Attending Tuesday’s proceedings were Kratz, who prosecuted both Avery and Dassey, and Avery’s new lawyer, Kathleen Zellner.

Dassey remains behind bars at Columbia Correctional Institution in Portage while the state’s appeal is still pending.

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