In a 2-1 ruling, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals panel held that Dassey’s confession was coerced. The judges ruled that Wisconsin courts had failed to consider Dassey’s age — he was 16 at the time of the confession — and his diminished mental capacity when they rejected his earlier appeals.
Dassey was convicted in 2007 of helping his uncle, Steven Avery, rape and murder Teresa Halbach at Avery’s salvage yard in Wisconsin. Dassey was sentenced to life in prison. Dassey’s confession to sheriff’s investigators was the key evidence in the trials of both defendants. By that point, Dassey had already recanted. He claims that he was manipulated into confessing to a crime he did not commit.
Writing for the panel, Judge Ilana Rovner noted Dassey was repeatedly pressed to give the “right” answers to questions, and that he changed his story repeatedly over the course of several interviews. Rovner also held that Dassey’s mental capacity made him specially vulnerable to such manipulation, which might otherwise be Constitutional.
“Because of the cumulative effect of these coercive techniques — the leading, the fact‐feeding, the false promises, the manipulation of Dassey’s desire to please, the physical, fatherly assurances as (Investigator Mark) Wiegert touched Dassey’s knee etc. — no reasonable court could have any confidence that this was a voluntary confession,” she wrote.
In his dissent, Judge David Hamilton described the interview of Dassey as “gentle,” and warned that the majority’s ruling will pose new challenges for police officers.
“Today’s decision will make some police investigations considerably more difficult, with little gained in terms of justice,” Williams wrote.
Dassey remains in prison. The majority opinion directs the state to initiate a new trial — at which the confession would be inadmissible — or release him within 90 days. The Wisconsin attorney general’s office may yet appeal the ruling to the full 7th Circuit, or to the Supreme Court.