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Brendan Dassey of Netflix “Making a Murderer” Seeks Clemency

Brendan Dassey from “Making a Murderer” Files a Clemency Petition

Brendan Dassey of in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin captivated Netflix viewers across the nation as the subject of the popular “Making a Murderer” documentary. The documentary focuses on the controversial investigation, criminal prosecution, conviction and sentencing of Brendan Dassey and his uncle for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach. Recently, lawyers for Brendan Dassey filed a clemency petition. It asks Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers to either grant him a pardon or commute his life sentence.

Who is Brendan Dassey?

Brendan Dassey received worldwide attention from the Netflix “Making a Murderer” documentary. It challenged how the police coerced a confession from Dassey to the murder and rape of photographer Teresa Halbach. Additionally, the documentary highlighted Dassey’s unjust treatment in light of his age and limited intellectual capacity.

Before the Halbach case, Dassey had no criminal record. He attended special education classes and had an IQ at the borderline deficiency level.

What Happened to Brendan Dassey?

In late October 2005, Halbach’s parents reported her missing to the police. In November 2005, police found Halbach’s car and then her body on Steve Avery’s (Dassey’s uncle) property. They also found her license plate, car keys and cell phone at the property. Police identified Dassey’s uncle’s blood in Halbach’s car. Halbach’s calendar revealed that Avery hired her to photograph his sister’s van to post pictures on an online auto sale site. Apparently, she came to the property to meet Avery for the assignment.

Finally, in March 2006, police arrested Dassey.

Dassey’s Controversial Confession to Police

Police held Dassey for interrogation four times within a 48-hour period. Shockingly, he did not have legal representation even though he was an intellectually disabled minor. Ultimately, the police coerced a confession. However, Dassey could not describe the exact murder method. On top of that, physical evidence from the crime scene contradicted his confession.

Later on, Dassey recanted his confession. Then, he told his lawyer he was innocent. He said most of his ideas came from a book that he read. Unfortunately, Dassey’s lawyer convinced him to plead guilty. At the same time, Dassey cooperated with the prosecution to testify against his uncle.

Dassey’s Conviction and Life Sentence

Before trial, the court removed Dassey’s first lawyer for abandoning him in the police interrogation. Two public defenders replaced him.

In 2007, a jury found Dassey guilty of first degree intentional murder, second degree assault and mutilation of a corpse. They disregarded his diminished intelligence and young age. He has a life sentence and is not eligible for parole until 2048.

Dassey’s Rounds of Appeals

Although Dassey’s attorneys filed a motion for a new trial, the Wisconsin trial court denied it in 2010. The Wisconsin Court of Appeals upheld the denial in 2013. Eventually, the Wisconsin Supreme Court refused to review the case.

The 2015 release of the Netflix documentary inspired public outrage. Petitions demanded the investigation of the police who coerced Dassey’s confessions. In December 2015, Dassey’s new lawyers filed a writ of habeas corpus. It challenged his confinement based on his coerced confession and ineffective assistance of counsel arguments.

Eight months later, United States Magistrate Judge William E. Duffin ordered Dassey’s release. The Wisconsin Department of Justice appealed the order to the Seventh Circuit. Next, the three-judge appellate panel upheld Dassey’s release. Again, the Wisconsin Department of Justice requested a rehearing with a panel of seven Seventh Circuit judges. In the rehearing, the full panel overturned Dassey’s release.

In February 2018, Dassey’s lawyers petitioned for a writ of certiorari to the United States Supreme Court. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court sets the case for a hearing but later declined to hear the case. Oddly, the Supreme Court provided no explanation for removing the case from the hearing calendar.

Is Brendan Dassey in Prison?

Currently, Brendan Dassey remains incarcerated at a correctional facility in Wisconsin. If the governor denies Dassey’s clemency petition, he must wait until 2048 to seek parole. Without parole, Dassey must serve a life sentence.

How Old is Brendan Dassey Now?

At the time of Halbach’s murder, Brendan Dassey was only 16 years old. When he faced trial, Dassey was 17 years old. Despite his young age, the prosecution succeeded in trying him as an adult. Right now, Dassey is 29 years old and has already served over a decade in prison.

In addition to Dassey’s young age at the time of the crime, some questioned his competency given his low IQ of only 74.

How is Brendan Dassey Related to Steven Avery?

Steven Avery is Brendan Dassey’s uncle and also appeared throughout the “Making a Murderer“ documentary. Police found Halbach’s burned body at his property and Avery’s blood in Halbach’s vehicle. Along with his nephew, Avery is in prison serving a life sentence for the murder of Teresa Halbach. Likewise, Avery seeks release from prison.

Generally, Avery's conviction involves many of the same issues as Dassey's. For example, school records show that Avery also had a low IQ of 70. His family owned and operated a salvage yard in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.

Is Steven Avery Guilty?

In a separate trial, a jury convicted Steven Avery of the murder of Teresa Halbach. Like Dassey, Avery received a life prison sentence. However, questions remain regarding his conviction based on potential evidence tampering by police and bias against Avery for a previous wrongful conviction.

Steven Avery’s Prior Criminal Record and Wrongful Conviction

Before Halbach’s murder, Avery served 18 years in prison for the rape and attempted murder of Penny Beerntsen in July 1985. Remarkably, 16 eyewitnesses placed Avery 40 miles away from the crime scene at the time of the murder. Despite that, the Manitowoc County still arrested and charged Avery. In 1995, an officer at a neighboring county jail called the Manitowoc County police to tell them another prisoner confessed to the crime. Again, the Manitowoc County maintained Avery’s guilt.

In 2002, DNA testing identified Gregory Allen’s blood in the victim’s car and exonerated Avery of the crime. In 2003, Avery finally secured his release from prison. His wrongful conviction sparked extensive reforms of the Wisconsin criminal justice system. In 2005, Avery sued Manitowoc County as well as its sheriff and district attorney. He won a $400,000 settlement for his wrongful conviction.

Bias in the Investigation and Prosecution of Steven Avery for Halbach’s Murder

The Netflix documentary shined a light on the bias of the Manitowoc County police against Avery. Primarily, they harbored contempt for Avery as a result of his lawsuit and public criticism of the Manitowoc County police and district attorney. Accordingly, Manitowoc County played a major role in investigating and charging Avery even though a neighboring county should have handled it.

Worse yet, the documentary suggested that Manitowoc County police planted Avery’s blood in the victim’s car. They had access to it from the evidence files of the 1985 Penny Beerntsen murder case.

Lastly, it came out that several jurors had relatives in the Manitowoc County police department.

Steven Avery’s Appeals

In his most recent appeal, Avery’s lawyers argued that police mishandled bone evidence at the crime scene. Avery won his latest appeal for a new trial in front of a three-judge panel in the Wisconsin Court of Appeals.

In September 2019, Avery’s supporters offered a $100,000 reward for any information on Halbach’s actual murderer. An inmate then sent a signed confession letter from prison, but many believe it was fraudulent to collect the reward.

Brendan Dassey’s Petition for Clemency

Recently, Brendan Dassey’s lawyers filed a petition for clemency with the Wisconsin governor. Given that Dassey’s conviction was for a state crime, the president cannot issue a pardon. Only federal criminal cases qualify for a pardon from the president.

The Supreme Court’s denial of Dassey’s petition for review generated wide outrage. With the exhaustion of appeal options, clemency became Dassey’s last hope for release from prison.

In his petition, Dassey claims actual innocence as grounds for clemency. His clemency petition describes how police coerced Dassey’s initial confession through manipulation and scare tactics. Dassey’s limited intellectual capacity made him highly suggestible and a prime target for coercion. Police told him that he could leave the interrogation room if he told them what they wanted. Dassey’s lawyers argued that he sincerely believed the promise and said whatever the police suggested to him.

Forms of Clemency Available for Federal Crimes

First of all, different clemency options apply to state and federal crimes. Likewise, the clemency petition processes vary greatly for state and federal crimes. Federal cases eligible for presidential clemency include criminal cases tried in the U.S. district courts, D.C. Superior Court or military courts-martial.

As explained below, commutations and pardons are the major forms of executive clemency.

Commutation of Prison Sentence

An inmate can ask for a reduction in a prison sentence. This is called a commutation.

Pardon

A presidential pardon means complete forgiveness for the criminal offense. The pardon recipient regains all of their rights as a citizen.

Applying for Clemency for Federal Crimes

The Office of the Pardon Attorney as part of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) receives and reviews clemency petitions. One of the conditions of applying for a presidential pardon is a five-year wait term after a petitioner’s release from prison.

Investigators at the DOJ thoroughly vet clemency applications. The president receives recommendations from the Office of the Pardon Attorney and has the ultimate say in granting clemency petitions.

Retain Brandon Sample, PLC for Clemency Assistance

Certainly, anything that can help ease the burden of the consequences of a criminal conviction is worth pursuing for you or a loved one. Also, determining whether clemency is an option in your case is something to discuss with an experienced criminal attorney. Keep in mind that there are various forms of clemency available. Distinguishing between them and finding your best option after a criminal conviction involves legal analysis, strategic planning and attention to detail.

Most importantly, ensure that you preserve all of your rights and have the best chance of rebuilding your life with legal assistance in submitting a clemency petition. Do not trust something as important as your freedom and future to anyone other than a reliable clemency attorney.

Contact Our Office

Contact Brandon Sample, PLC for a free consultation about your criminal case and potentially seeking clemency for you or a loved one. Submit your case details via this convenient form to make an appointment to discuss the details of your case. You can also call 802-444-HELP (4357) for an emergency matter.

About Brandon Sample

Brandon Sample is an attorney, author, and criminal justice reform activist. Brandon’s law practice is focused on federal criminal defense, federal appeals, federal post-conviction relief, federal civil rights litigation, federal administrative law, and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

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