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Federal appeals court: Dassey's conviction upheld

Brendan Dassey (Photo source: Wisconsin Dept. of Corrections)

CHICAGO (WLUK) – A federal appeals court has overturned a lower court decision – effectively reinstating Brendan Dassey’s conviction for the murder of Teresa Halbach.

In the 70-page ruling, the appeals panel ruled “The state courts’ finding that Dassey’s confession was voluntary was not beyond fair debate, but we conclude it was reasonable. We reverse the grant of Dassey’s petition for a writ of habeas corpus.”

After Dassey’s conviction for the 2005 murder, his lawyers appealed – challenging his wide-ranging confession as involuntary. The state appeals court upheld the conviction, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court did not take the case. The case was appealed to a federal judge, who tossed out the confession. The state appealed to a federal appeals court, which upheld the decision – finding that false promises of leniency were indeed made to Dassey and that his March 1st confession was not voluntary. Then, the state was granted a review before full court of appeals in Chicago.

The appeals court, in the 4-3 decision, sent the case back to the district court judge with instructions to dismiss Dassey’s petition.

Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel issued this statement: "I’m gratified that the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of habeas. Today’s decision is a testament to the talent of the attorneys at the Wisconsin Department of Justice who have worked tirelessly to deliver justice for the family and friends of Teresa Halbach over the last decade."

Dassey’s attorneys could appeal the decision to the United States Supreme Court. They released the following statement on their website:

"We are profoundly disappointed by the decision of four judges of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit to reverse two prior decisions and deny relief to Brendan Dassey. Like many around the globe, we share the view of the three judges who wrote, in dissent, that today’s ruling represents a “profound miscarriage of justice.” We intend to continue pursuing relief for Brendan, including through a petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.

Today’s ruling contravenes a fundamental and time-honored position of the United States Supreme Court: interrogation tactics that may not be coercive when applied to adults are coercive when applied to children and the mentally impaired. Indeed, when such tactics are applied to vulnerable populations, the risk of false confession grows intolerably. Unfortunately, this time-worn lesson was ignored today by four judges in the case of Brendan Dassey. We at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth are committed to continuing to fight on behalf of Brendan and others like him ?to prevent future miscarriages of justice."

Dassey's brother, Brad Dassey, told FOX 11, “I’m heartbroken over the news for now, but I’m sure when Kathleen Zellner kicks some tail with her awesome ethics, I really do not believe that this is over just yet. There’s still some hope.”

Attorney Kathleen Zellner, who is representing Dassey’s uncle, Steven Avery, responded to the news via Twitter:

In Friday’s decision, the appeals court says several items support Dassey’s claims of a coerced confession:

“He was young. He was alone with the police. He was somewhat limited intellectually. The officers’ questioning included general assurances of leniency if he told the truth, and Dassey may have believed they promised more than they did. At times it appeared as though Dassey simply did not grasp the gravity of his confession—after confessing to rape and murder, he asked the officers if he would be back at school that afternoon in time to turn in a project. Portions of the questioning also included leading and suggestive questions, and throughout the interrogation Dassey faced follow?up inquiries when the investigators were not satisfied with what he had told them, leading him at times to seem to guess. In addition, the confusion and contradictions in Dassey’s account of the crimes of October 31st lend support to the view that his confession was the product of suggestions and/or a desire to tell the police what they wanted to hear,” the wrote.

However, there was also evidence the confession was voluntarily.

“As stipulated by both sides, Dassey was not in custody when he admitted participating in the crimes of October 31st. He went with the officers voluntarily and with his mother’s knowledge and consent. He was given Miranda warnings and understood them sufficiently,” the court wrote. “Dassey was not subject to physical coercion or any sort of threats at all… Also, most of the incriminating details in Dassey’s confession were not suggested by the questioners. He volunteered them in response to open?ended questions.”

The federal court reinforced the Wisconsin court acted appropriately.

“Given the state courts’ reasonable findings of fact and the absence of clearly established Supreme Court precedent that compels relief for Dassey, the district court’s grant of habeas relief is REVERSED,” the ruling states.

Several of the judges issued dissenting opinions.

“Because the detectives used coercive interrogation tactics on an intellectually disabled juvenile, Dassey’s will was overborne during his March 1 interrogation. Without this involuntary and highly unreliable confession, the case against Dassey was almost nonexistent. This court should be granting his petition for a writ of habeas corpus and giving the state an opportunity to retry him, if it so desires. I respectfully dissent,” wrote one judge.

The appeals court also rejected Dassey’s claim on effective assistance of counsel.

Both Dassey and Avery are serving life prison terms.

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