A federal appellate judge hearing arguments Tuesday in Chicago about whether investigators coerced a confession from a Wisconsin inmate featured in the Netflix series “Making a Murderer” said video of detectives questioning Brendan Dassey was so disturbing that it made her “skin crawl.”
But other judges at the full-court rehearing at 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago sounded unconvinced that investigators had manipulated the intellectually challenged Dassey and encouraged him to tell them what they wanted to hear about the 2005 slaying of photographer Teresa Halbach in Two River, Wisconsin.
If the court decides the confession wasn’t voluntary, Dassey could go free in a high-profile case that puts police interrogation practices in the spotlight. The seven judges who heard the arguments seemed split, based on their questions. A ruling is expected within several months.
Dassey, now 27, was convicted based primarily on his confession and sentenced to life in prison in 2007. He was 16 when he told detectives he helped his uncle, Steven Avery, rape and kill Halbach in the Avery family’s junkyard in Manitowoc County.
A federal magistrate judge in Milwaukee overturned Dassey’s conviction last year, ruling detectives took advantage of Dassey’s youth and cognitive disabilities to coerce his confession. A three-judge panel from the appellate court later upheld the magistrate’s ruling, prompting state attorneys to ask the full 7th Circuit for a review.
It was Chief Judge Diane Wood who most clearly signaled she believed the detectives went too far, including by quoting a Biblical passage that the “truth would set him free” to suggest Dassey might be released if he confessed and by winning his trust by saying they were talking to him more as parental figures than as cops.
Video of the interrogation shows one detective saying he’s a dad to a child around Dassey’s age, adding, “There nothing I’d like more than to come over and give you a hug cause I know you’re hurting.”
“The investigators made my skin crawl watching this video,” Wood said. Wood noted that Dassey had no one representing him in the room and appeared disoriented, pausing for long stretches. “He is obviously racking his brain about how he can answer … in a way (investigators) will like,” she said.
Dassey’s has a low IQ of around 80 and struggles to grasp simple concepts, meanings and consequences, court filings say. Wood said comments by Dassey during his interview strongly…