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Laura Nirider is the attorney for Brendan Dassey. Click here for more of OnMilwaukee's coverage of the Netflix documentary, "Making A Murderer."
Thirteen years ago this week, Manitowoc special education student Brendan Dassey was convicted of participating in the murder of Teresa Halbach based on a confession now widely acknowledged to be false. Brendan was 16 years old and in the tenth grade when he gave that confession; today, he’s 30. And he remains behind bars, serving a life term.
As one of Brendan’s longtime lawyers, that last sentence is pretty hard for me to write – although not as hard as it is for Brendan to live. It’s been known for years that forensic evidence has disproven his confession. After being told that providing information would help him avoid charges, Brendan haltingly described a bloody attack on Ms. Halbach that supposedly happened in his uncle’s bedroom. Despite being scoured from top to bottom, however, that bedroom bore no trace of blood or DNA from either Brendan or Teresa Halbach. This type of forensic evidence has led to exonerations in many other cases around the country. But Brendan still waits behind bars.
It’s also been apparent for years that Brendan was simply guessing during his interrogation. When asked to describe how Ms. Halbach was killed, he guessed – incorrectly – that she had been stabbed and strangled; as police continued pressuring him, he even guessed that her hair had been cut. Finally, frustrated detectives had to tell him that she had been shot.
This "guessing game"-style interrogation mirrors other false confession cases; consider, for instance, the case of Virginia exoneree David Vasquez, who guessed wrongly that the victim had been tied with ropes, a belt, and clothesline before having to be told that the right answer was Venetian blinds. When a supposed killer can’t accurately describe the crime, common sense should kick in: something is seriously wrong. And it’s well worth noting that this part of Brendan’s confession is the only evidence keeping him in prison; nothing else ties him to the murder. But Brendan still waits behind bars.
A few years ago, Brendan came within 24 hours of freedom. A federal court threw out his conviction, and a Milwaukee judge even ordered his release, finding that he posed no danger whatsoever. By a single vote, however, a federal court of appeals reinstated the conviction. For truly arcane reasons, the higher court felt legally prohibited from deciding whether Brendan’s confession was false. It only considered whether the confession had been constitutionally obtained, an entirely separate question to which, the majority decided, the answer was yes.
So – and I grit my teeth – Brendan still waits behind bars.
My colleagues and I filed a clemency petition last fall, asking Governor Tony Evers – a former teacher who surely knew special education students like Brendan – to commute Brendan’s sentence. The U.S. Supreme Court, after all, has called a governor’s clemency power a "failsafe" to be deployed when the judicial system swings and misses.
More than 250 legal, law enforcement, psychological, and political experts signed an open letter to Governor Evers, requesting Brendan’s freedom. Tens of thousands around the globe, who had heard about Brendan’s case by watching the Netflix series "Making a Murderer," chimed in by signing a petition to the Governor. But the Wisconsin Pardon Advisory Board rejected Brendan’s application five days before Christmas – without even reviewing it! – because the Board had simply decided that the Governor should not commute anyone’s sentence, no matter how deserving. And so Brendan still waits behind bars.
Brendan Dassey has grown up from a patient, kind teenager into a patient, kind man. When I talk to him, he never complains about his lost years, or the many years he has yet to lose; rather, he asks after my family and tells me he still believes in the legal system. He clings to a childlike faith that some day, he’ll go home again. And in the meantime, Brendan works prison jobs like folding laundry and pushing elderly prisoners around in their wheelchairs, and he dreams of what he’ll name his children if he wins freedom before he becomes elderly himself.
To insist that this gentle man committed a savage murder – to make him, of all people, wait behind bars – is absurd, and terribly unjust.
The Center on Wrongful Convictions, which my colleague Steve Drizin and I co-direct, has exonerated more than forty innocent men, women, and children. We know that it can take a decade or longer to free the innocent. Thanks to the good work of so many people, some days it seems like the whole world has become convinced of Brendan’s innocence – except those few who hold the keys to his prison cell. Because of the sheer number of people who believe in him, Brendan’s case won’t ever fade away.
Consider this: after "Making a Murderer" was released, untold numbers around the globe – in this strange era of true crime – took it upon themselves to dig up the police reports and research every shred of evidence against him. In hundreds of public threads on Reddit, Twitter, and elsewhere, throngs of people pored through the investigation. No one has found anything even remotely suggestive of Brendan’s guilt. No one. Cases like these don’t fade away, and they shouldn’t. Until they’re remedied, cases like Brendan’s indelibly stain our justice system.
What Brendan needs – what I ask for now – what we must find now – is courage. We need courage from the Governor’s office or, as increasingly occurs in wrongful conviction cases, from an independent panel of experts who could re-examine Brendan’s case with fresh eyes. These are hard asks in a politically divided time – but Wisconsin is better than endless politics. I know this because thousands of Wisconsinites, from both sides of the aisle, signed our online petition to Governor Evers asking for Brendan’s freedom. I know it because Wisconsin teachers rallied around Brendan, writing letters to the Governor about how vulnerable special education students like him are. And I know it because when we announced Brendan’s clemency effort in Madison last fall, the waitress at my diner leaned over and whispered her support, and strangers cheered for Brendan when they saw his legal team walking down the sidewalk.
If everyday, decent Wisconsinites like them are behind Brendan, then I feel more hope than ever before.
Brendan Dassey should not wait behind bars any longer.
Laura Nirider is a Clinical Associate Professor of Law and Co-Director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law in Chicago. Nirider represents individuals who were wrongfully convicted of crimes when they were children or teenagers. Her clients have included Brendan Dassey, whose case was profiled in the Netflix Global series Making a Murderer, and Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three, whose case was profiled in the documentary West of Memphis.
In addition to her courtroom work, Nirider regularly publishes scholarly and practitioner-focused articles on interrogations and post-conviction relief. In partnership with the International Association of Chiefs of Police, she has co-authored one of the only existing juvenile interrogation protocols. She is also a frequent presenter on interrogations at defender and law enforcement training conferences around the country and has been featured in film and television programs on interrogations. Recently, she co-authored an amicus curiae brief that was cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in J.D.B. v. North Carolina for the proposition that the risk of false confession is "all the more troubling ... and all the more acute ... when the subject of custodial interrogation is a juvenile."