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The recent series on Netflix, Making a Murderer has highlighted some of the significant flaws within the American Justice system. The series follows the trial of Steven Avery, who was charged and convicted for the murder of Teresa Halbach. He was previously exonerated after spending 18 years in prison for the rape, attempted murder and false imprisonment of Penny Beerntsen. During Steven Avery’s trial, his nephew, Brendan Dassey confessed to being a party to the murder and also confessed to raping, cutting the throat and burning the body of Teresa Halbach with his uncle. Brendan at the time was 16 years of age and had an IQ between 69 and 70. He was also in receipt of special educational needs support at school.
In 2005, Brendan was questioned by the police as a witness and denied any knowledge of the events relating to Miss Halbach. However, in January 2006, his cousin informed the school counselor that Brendan had discussed a murder with her and had said that he had been involved. The counselor disclosed this to the police and Brendan was arrested and questioned several times before admitting to assisting Steven Avery with the murder and rape of Miss Halbach.
According to Brendan, he arrived home after school and went to deliver a letter to his uncle. He knocked several times and was met at the door by a sweaty Steven Avery who invited him in. Brendan said he saw Miss Halbach tied to Steven Avery’s bed. Steven Avery invited him to rape Miss Halbach and after he was finished, Steven Avery stabbed her and passed the knife to him. He slit her throat; they carried her to the garage, shot her in the head, placed her in the boot of her car and then went to burn her body. They then cleaned up the blood and Steven Avery kept the key as he said he will strip the car later.
Although the detail provided by Brendan, on the face of it, is very detailed and precise information relating to the murder of Miss Halbch, what is notable for anyone watching the recording of his interview, is that he does not provide any of this information of his own recognizance. Throughout the interview, he was prompted by the police who in response to his answers continuously said “don’t lie to us’, ‘what else happened’ and most notably ‘what happened to her head’ to which he replied in a form of question ‘I slit her throat’. At the point where the police had still not obtained the specific information they required, one of the interviewing officers says “I am just going to come out and say it, who shot her in the head?”
Following questioning by the police, Brendan then asked whether he was able to go home and showed a lack of understanding of the implications of his statements and the circumstances he had placed himself in.
On May 12 2006, Brendan’s Defense Lawyer requested for his investigator to speak with Brendan. During this interview with the investigator, Brendan was told to tell the truth. He set out a detailed statement which neither admitted to nor implicated Steven Avery; the statement made no mention of the murder or rape of Teresa Halbach. The investigator returned his statement, noting that it was insufficient. The investigator then proceeded to direct him in relation to what should be set out. He instructed Brendan to drawn images of Miss Halbach being raped and being murdered. The investigator then spoke with his Defense Lawyer noting that they have what is needed. Another interview was arranged with the police again with no legal representation being present or guardian being present. Following this, Brendan’s Defense Lawyer was dismissed by the Judge presiding over the case.
Throughout the process, Brendan’s story of his involvement changed considerably and was inconsistent. There was also no corroborating evidence. For example, despite claiming that Miss Halbach had been tied with a rope to Steven Avery’s bed, no rope fibres were found in the bedroom or on the bed. He had also said that Steven Avery had stabbed Miss Halbach and he had slit throat whilst they were still in the bedroom, and shot her in the head in Steven Avery’s garage however, no blood was found in the bedroom or in the garage. There was also no DNA evidence or fingerprints found to place Brendan or Miss Halbach in Steven Avery’s home or bedroom. Brendan also on a number of occasions told his mother that he had nothing to do with it and he had not seen Miss Halbach near Steven Avery’s property. According to him, the police had got into his head, and when giving them information he was just guessing what they wanted him to say, like he did in school.
The only evidence against Brendan was his statement of confession. On application to dismiss the statement, this was refused by the Judge. Brendan was convicted of first degree intentional homicide, mutilation of a corpse and first degree sexual assault based on his confession.
When one reviews the method of questioning adopted by the police, it is evident that there are significant flaws within the investigative process. Also, as an individual with a low IQ, he is also more susceptible to being led and coerced. It is therefore one’s view that the statement should have been excluded and Brendan should not have been convicted.
Written by Vida Simpeh