Making a Murderer, the compulsively watchable Netflix series that ate up a big chunk of the holidays for many of us, has a couple of major Chicago connections.
If you haven’t yet succumbed to this ten-part documentary—which took a decade for former Columbia University classmates Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos to complete—be aware that what follows contains some spoilers. None are likely to be potent enough to keep you from becoming addicted once you click the play button.
Making a Murderer follows the dicey criminal investigations and trials of Steven Avery, of rural Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, and his nephew, Brendan Dassey—both convicted of the lurid murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach, who’d been sent to their family’s auto salvage yard to photograph a car on Halloween 2005.
It was the second notorious conviction for Avery. He’d already spent 18 years in Wisconsin prisons for a rape he didn’t commit, and was in the process of suing Manitowoc County and its officials for $36 million when they arrested him again.
The future of his intellectually challenged nephew—who was 16 years old when he confessed to raping Halbach while she was chained to his uncle’s bed, slitting her throat, and helping torch her body—rests in large part with Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. With Milwaukee-based attorney Robert Dvorak, the center has taken his case to federal court in Wisconsin, where a decision by district court magistrate judge William E. Duffin is pending.
Northwestern law professor Steven Drizin, a cofounder of the center, says their team spent two years investigating the case and came up with striking new evidence: one of Dassey’s own court-appointed attorneys, Len Kachinsky, and an investigator working for him, Michael O’Kelly, had “essentially conspired to coerce a confession out of Brendan” in order to get him to testify against his uncle, and had then allowed him to be interrogated by the police without his attorney present. “We were floored,” Drizin says.
The Northwestern team filed an appeal. It was heard in January 2010 by the same judge who had presided over Dassey’s trial. In one of the documentary’s many jaw-dropping moments, O’Kelly describes the Avery clan as “pure evil” (an opinion apparently shared by much of the local community). He then admits in court that his goal when he met with Dassey was to gather evidence that would help the state in its prosecution of Avery, even if that evidence would inculpate his client.
The district court denied the appeal, as did the Wisconsin appellate court. When the state supreme court declined to review the case, Drizin says, they were left with one option—”to try to get the federal courts to vacate the state court decisions, because they unreasonably applied federal constitutional law.”
The constitutional issues include whether Dassey’s confession was involuntary—whether the tactics used on him trumped his own will. Defense attorney Mark Fremgen, who replaced Kachinsky, can be seen in the documentary ascribing those tactics to the training that some police and investigators received from a Chicago firm, John E. Reid and Associates.
Reid president Joseph Buckley did not return a request for comment before press time.
Developed in 1947 by a former Chicago cop, the Reid technique is, according to the company’s website, the world’s most widely used interrogation approach. Its procedure reportedly calls for investigators to put major emphasis on the subject’s body language and, among other tactics, allows them to pretend that they have evidence of guilt while shutting down denials. In the documentary, Fremgen’s co-counsel, Ray Edelstein, points out that during Dassey’s interrogation, as the socially awkward teen tried to maintain that he didn’t know anything about the murder, investigators accused him of lying more than 75 times.
Drizin expects a decision within the next year. If Dassey loses, there could be an appeal, and, ultimately, the case could go to the U.S. Supreme Court. “But,” Drizin says, “at each stage of the process, it becomes harder to prevail.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s impossible,” he says. “The federal court process, because it’s completely independent, and because the judges are appointed for life, should give you a fair and impartial review. And that’s what we’re hoping for.”
The one thing Drizin says he would like viewers of the film to understand is that “these interrogation tactics are not designed to be used with children and with people who are cognitively limited. Unless there’s a defense attorney present, it’s an unfair fight—it preys on their vulnerabilities and it increases the risk that they will confess to crimes they didn’t commit.”
“The police shouldn’t be allowed to use them with someone like Brendan Dassey.”