It was less than a year ago that Making a Murderer captivated viewers with its chronicling of the verdicts of Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, in the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach. But it looks like the story is still far from over. Last week, a federal judge in Wisconsin overturned the murder and sexual assault conviction of Dassey. The new ruling has not only renewed the heightened international attention on the case, but has also left many wondering whether this will have any bearing on Avery and his upcoming appeal.
As Making a Murderer showcases, Dassey was 16 years old when he was sentenced to life in prison for the killing of Halbach. In 2006, the then-teenager confessed to helping Avery carry out the crime, but questions over the validity of that confession have since surfaced — both in the Netflix series and in the courtroom. In their appeal, Dassey’s attorneys argued that their client’s constitutional rights were violated throughout the investigation and that the confession was forced using certain interrogation tactics, which the attorneys said “may not be coercive when used on adults [but] are coercive when used on juveniles, particularly young people like Brendan with disabilities.”
The court agreed with their argument, with U.S. Magistrate Judge William Duffin ruling that Dassey’s confession was involuntary because investigators used “deceptive interrogation tactics that overbore Dassey’s free will.” This overturned conviction has been a long time coming, as attorneys for Dassey have been arguing that his confession was involuntary since August 2006.
The news was met with widespread approval from Making a Murderer viewers, the vast majority of which felt that the learning impaired teenager was manipulated into confessing. Dassey will now be freed within 90 days unless prosecutors decide to retry him (which some say is likely).
[Update, 11/14/16: Per the BBC, a judge has ordered the immediate release of Brendan Dassey.]
Of course, the surprising turn of events has also brought up one inevitable question: Will Dassey’s overturned conviction impact Avery and if so, how?
Although Avery was convicted of Halbach’s murder alongside Dassey and is currently serving his own life sentence, it’s unlikely that the latter’s overturned conviction will have any immediate impact on the former’s case. Prosecutors never called Dassey to testify at Avery’s trial and didn’t use the teenager’s confession as evidence against Avery in court, so its suppression probably won’t have any huge effect on Avery’s shot at appeal.
There’s also the simple matter of the differing amount of evidence between cases. Dassey’s confession was the only thing linking him to the murder, as prosecutors were unable to find any physical evidence of his presence at the crime scene. Conversely, Avery’s case is full of physical evidence — albeit, highly contested evidence.
Still, while the new ruling for Dassey probably won’t have any urgent impact on Avery’s case, that doesn’t mean that it will go completely unmentioned in the Avery’s appeal. Jerry Buting, one of Avery’s original lawyers from Making a Murderer, states that the overturned conviction could help the defense in arguing that Avery didn’t get a fair trial. As he told TODAY’s TMJ4:
The state will probably argue that they never used Brendan’s confession in Steven’s case so it shouldn’t matter at all. But they did use Brendan’s so-called confession in the press conference in which [prosecutor Ken Kratz] polluted the jury pool state-wide by telling them that this was a true confession when they knew there was no evidence that would support it … They used the confession of Brendan Dassey to pollute the jury so that in Steven’s case, 129 of 130 jury questionnaires that came back — the people that we had to pick a jury from — all but one of them said Steven Avery was guilty before they had heard a shred of evidence in court. So it did have a direct effect on Steven Avery’s ability to get a fair trial.
Buting no longer represents Avery, so there’s no way to know whether or not this argument will actually be used in Avery’s appeal. But it may not have to be. Over the last several months, Avery’s new attorney, Kathleen Zellner, has been open about the drastic measures she has taken to prove her client’s innocence. She has alluded to potential alternative suspects, hinted at new evidence, and openly accused police of planting evidence on social media.
To her credit, Zellner has a strong track record. According to Rolling Stone, she has 17 exonerations on her resume and has made it very clear that she plans to make Avery her 18th — with no need for a retrial, no less. The lawyer reiterated her confidence in a statement addressing Dassey’s overturned conviction, revealing that Avery is happy for his nephew and looking forward to his own appeal. “We know when an unbiased court reviews all of the new evidence we have, Steven will have his conviction overturned as well,” she said. Zellner reiterated the feeling n a Twitter post below:
— Kathleen Zellner (@ZellnerLaw) August 12, 2016
Meanwhile, Making a Murderer filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos also addressed the recent ruling, saying, “Today was a major development for the subjects in our story and this recent news shows the criminal justice system at work. As we have done for the past 10 years, we will continue to document the story as it unfolds, and follow it wherever it may lead.”
Unsurprisingly, Making a Murderer is expected to return to Netflix for more episodes, although a premiere date has not been revealed. Cameras have reportedly already started rolling and are expected to follow Avery’s appeal, the filing of which is due by August 29.
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