Former Calamut County District Attorney Ken Kratz tells PEOPLE he feels sorry for Brendan Dassey, who was just a teenager when he was convicted of Teresa Halbach’s murder.
“I have a great bit of sympathy for Brendan Dassey,” says Kratz, who prosecuted both Dassey and his uncle, Steven Avery. “He never would have been involved in this except for his uncle. When his uncle handed him the knife he ensured that he’d be a part of this murder as well.”
Dassey features prominently in Netflix’s new 10-part docuseries, Making a Murderer, which examines the twist-filled case of Avery, a Wisconsin man who was released from prison after being exonerated for sexual assault only to be arrested again and convicted for Halbach’s murder.
Dassey was arrested for Halbach’s murder in March 2006, four months after Avery, after he allegedly implicated both himself and Avery in Halbach’s slaying, telling investigators he even helped his uncle dispose of her remains.
Dassey later recanted the confession, and during his trial, Dassey’s attorneys argued that detectives pressured the learning-disabled teen into signing fabricated statements. But Dassey was ultimately convicted in 2007 of homicide, sexual assault, and mutilation of a corpse.
A Failure of Justice?
One of Avery’s own defense attorneys, Dean Strang, tells PEOPLE he finds the Dassey trial more deeply distressing than that of his own client. “The systemic protections that are supposed to be in place failed in a much more visible, troubling way in the Dassey case,” Strang says.
He’s particularly disturbed by the fact that Dassey’s original court-appointed lawyer, Len Kachinsky, allowed the teen to be questioned alone by investigators. “[Kachinsky] allowed the cops to interview this mentally compromised, emotionally immature 16-year-old boy without even being there,” says Strang. (Kachinsky was later dismissed as Dassey’s lawyer for allowing this interrogation.)
Strang was also angered by Kratz’s decision to hold a press conference detailing the teen’s alleged involvement in the murder shortly after securing his first confession. “It’s painful to think about government employees, professionals on the prosecution side advancing in the media before any trial and then at Brendan’s trial a narrative that physically couldn’t have happened, that physically was contradicted by the trace evidence.
“A socially immature, cognitively low-functioning 16-year-old who’s never had any sexual experience supposedly goes into his 43-year-old uncle’s trailer and then, at his uncle’s urging, takes off all his clothes, manages to get sexually aroused and manages to assault a screaming, tied-down woman under the watchful eye of his uncle? That didn’t happen,” says Strang. “Where’s all the blood? Stop and think. Really?”
‘It Was Awfully Clear to Us That He Was Involved’
Kratz tells PEOPLE that he regrets the press conference shortly after Dassey’s arrest, but he believes that Kachinsky was truly trying to help his client secure a plea bargain when he allowed investigators to question Dassey alone.
“[Dassey] was really in a good position to not only once and for all tell people how Steven was involved, but he could have gotten a significantly [reduced sentence]” had he accepted the plea bargain, says Kratz.
It was Dassey’s family who “coerced” him into recanting, according to Kratz. “It was awfully clear to us that he was involved,” he says. “[But] his family was telling him, ‘You tell the court that they made you say these things.’ ”
Adds Kratz: “Brendan would have been out [soon with Kachinsky’s help].”
Dassey ultimately was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years.