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In this April 16, 2007, file photo, Brendan Dassey appears in court at the Manitowoc County Courthouse in Manitowoc, Wis. Dassey is a Wisconsin inmate who was featured in the “Making a Murderer” series. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2007 after he told detectives he helped his uncle, Steven Avery, rape and kill photographer Teresa Halbach. (Photo: Dan Powers/The Post-Crescent, Pool, File)

More than a year after the murder conviction of Brendan Dassey was tossed by a federal judge, a split appeals court has now upheld the pivotal confession the then-16-year-old made to two Wisconsin detectives—one of the details in the case that fueled the arguments made in the popular Netflix series “Making a Murderer” two years ago. 

Dassey spoke willingly to the two investigators, waived his Miranda rights and otherwise offered incriminating details that indicated he helped rape, torture and murder 25-year-old Teresa Halbach on Oct. 31, 2005, four of the judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit ruled Friday.

“Dassey spoke with the interrogators freely, after receiving and understanding Miranda warnings, and with his mother’s consent,” they ruled. “The interrogation took place in a comfortable setting, without any physical coercion or intimidation, without even raised voices, and over a relatively brief time.”

Dassey and his uncle Steven Avery were both convicted in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison. The case became an international phenomenon when “Making a Murderer” profiled Avery’s previous exoneration on a rape charge from the 1980s, as well as the Halbach murder.

The latest federal court review of Dassey’s writ of habeas corpus was based on the 1996 Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA). Such federal overturning of state convictions is rare—“reserved for those relatively uncommon cases in which state courts veer well outside the channels of reasonable decision-making about federal constitutional claims,” as the court found.

The four judges further ruled:

  • It is not illegal for officers to deceive suspects through appeals to the conscience, posing as a false friend, or using “other means of trickery and bluff.”
  • The detectives did not improperly encourage further details of Teresa Halbach’s murder when Mark Wiegert told Dassey “Honesty is the only thing that will set you free.”
  • The two detectives further attempted to provide an example of how details of the confession weren't being suggested, when they purposefully suggested Halbach had a tattoo on her stomach, which she did not have. Dassey correctly denied ever seeing a tattoo during the purported crimes.
  • Dassey, then 16, successfully waived his Miranda rights, with the agreement of his mother, according to the federal judges.
  • Dassey did not prove, through U.S. Supreme Court precedent, that his supposedly low intelligence proved he was at risk of providing a false confession.

“Dassey provided many of the most damning details himself in response to open-ended questions,” the judges ruled. “On a number of occasions he resisted the interrogators’ strong suggestions on particular details. Also, the investigators made no specific promises of leniency.”

Three of the seven judges dissented from the decision. Between the “ghoulish games of ‘20 Questions’” and the two detectives’ “psychological coercion,” Dassey’s confession should not be included, they said.

The trio of appellate judges presented a chart of critical facts and details of the crimes that they argued were coached by the interrogators during the hours of interviews, according to the court. Dassey’s answers to questions changed frequently, the officers “laid a trail of crumbs” to the confession, and falsely promised that honesty was “the only thing that will set him free,” the dissenting judges found.

“Dassey at the relevant time was 16 years old and had an IQ in the low 80s,” they write. “His confession was coerced, and thus it should not have been admitted into evidence. And even if we were to overlook the coercion, the confession is so riddled with input from the police that its use violates due process.

“Dassey will spend the rest of his life in prison because of the injustice this court has decided to leave unredressed,” the judges write. “I respectfully dissent.”

Avery’s legal fights to get a new trial continue. A Wisconsin judge refused to grant a new trial in October based on Avery’s contention there was new evidence. But defense attorney Kathleen Zellner filed a new motion just days later, touting new forensic evidence costing some $200,000, which she claims would set her client free. 

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