Sidebar: Was It a False Confession in ‘Making a Murderer’? The Supreme Court May Decide


When his mother asked him how he had been able to answer the investigators’ questions, he said he had guessed. “That’s what I do with my homework,” he added.

Mr. Dassey and his family were completely overmatched by the criminal justice system. In a call to his mother from jail, for instance, Mr. Dassey said he had been told that some of his statements had been “inconsistent.” He did not know what the word meant, so he asked his mother. She did not know, either.

A Wisconsin appeals court upheld Mr. Dassey’s conviction. But a federal judge and a divided three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in Chicago, ruled that Mr. Dassey’s confession should have been suppressed. Without the confession, Judge Ilana Rovner wrote for the majority, the case against Mr. Dassey basically evaporated, as “no one ever found a single hair, a drop of blood, a trace of DNA or a scintilla of physical evidence linking Dassey to this crime.”

The full Seventh Circuit reversed the trial judge’s decision by a 4-to-3 vote, saying that Mr. Dassey could not overcome barriers in a 1996 federal law that makes it hard for federal courts to grant relief to people convicted in state courts.

In dissent, Chief Judge Diane P. Wood wrote that this was a “travesty of justice.”

Mr. Dassey is represented by Seth P. Waxman, who served as United States solicitor general in the Clinton administration and later helped persuade the Supreme Court to abolish the death penalty for juvenile offenders.

“Put simply,” Mr. Waxman wrote in his petition seeking review in the new case, Dassey v. Dittmann, No. 17-1172, “the interrogators took advantage of Dassey’s youth and mental limitations to convince him they were on his side, ignored his manifest inability to correctly answer many of their questions about the crimes, fed him facts so he could say what they wanted to hear, and promised that he would be set free if he did so. The resulting confession was more theirs than his.”

The Supreme Court seldom agrees to hear cases merely to correct errors in a single case, even ones with grave consequences. But a supporting brief filed by scores of current and former prosecutors urged the justices to hear Mr. Dassey’s appeal in light of the attention “Making a Murderer” had drawn to his confession.

“It affected the way everyday Americans view our justice system,” the prosecutors wrote.


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