It took a jury a little more than four hours to convict Brendan Dassey of three criminal counts, which may result in life imprisonment for the 17-year-old.
Dassey was found guilty of first-degree intentional homicide, second-degree sexual assault and mutilating the corpse of photographer Theresa Halbach.
According to a trio of area defense attorneys who tracked the case, the quick verdict came down to one key point in the proceedings.
“This case was all about the confession,” said attorney Mark E. Hersh of Mark Hersh Law Office S.C., in Glendale.
Prior to his uncle Steven Avery’s conviction in March, Dassey had confessed and then recanted a detailed confession of his involvement in the murder of Halbach.
Th lead prosecutor in the case, Kenneth R. Kratz agreed that the trial centered on Dassey’s admission and that it was the decisive factor in the outcome.
“Obviously, without the statements, criminal prosecution would have been virtually impossible,” said Kratz, who serves as Calumet County District Attorney.
The defense attempted to suppress the videotaped confession, but that request was denied, which left the jury to decide whether the admittance of guilt was legitimate.
“Obviously there was a lot of focus on the videotape and while we had a chance to view it multiple times, the jury saw it once and they probably focused more on what the interviewee said and not so much what the police said,” said Dassey’s attorney, Raymond L. Edelstein, who was unsure if his client would appeal. “I wish they had taken more time to consider all of it.”
Kratz admitted that the main challenge for the prosecution was to prove Dassey’s confession was true.
“Because there was a lack of physical evidence supporting Mr. Dassey’s statements and admission, we spent a significant amount of time convincing the jury that what he said, happened,” said Kratz.
“Obviously, the jury agreed with us.”
Despite the presence of a confession, the defense had a valid case in the opinion of Milwaukee attorney John A. Birdsall.
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“I thought (the defense) would at least get reasonable doubt,” said Birdsall of Birdsall Law Office S.C. “I thought there was a strong case going in about Dassey’s inability to understand what he was doing and saying.”
The learning-disabled Dassey was portrayed by the defense as someone who simply did what he was told by Avery, and was not a criminally devious accomplice.
“The state painted him as a mainstream student, which he was to an extent, but there was certainly evidence that he had an extremely bad memory and had learning disabilities,” said Edelstein.
Hersh pointed to opening statements, during which the defense claimed Dassey was there to dispose of the body and did not participate in the sexual assault or murder.
But with an admissible confession which said otherwise, the defense was challenged with convincing the jury of Dassey’s limited involvement and comprehension.
“That is why the defense had to focus on trying to knock out or explain away why and how he (Dassey) confessed if he did not do the crimes,” said attorney Raymond M. Dall’Osto of Gimbel, Reilly, Guerin & Brown in Milwaukee. “A Himalayan-like climb for the defense, but all they had, given the confession.”
Even prior to the trial, questions arose about the validity of Dassey’s confession to Manitowoc County law enforcement officials. Dassey admitted his guilt in detail four months after the crime and recanted the confession during the trial.
The reversal left Birdsall skeptical about the circumstances surrounding the confession. He said it was not a stretch to believe that law enforcement pressured Dassey into confessing.
Birdsall said it was generally not “an uncommon story for someone of limited psychological means to be persuaded and cajoled through soft techniques from professional interrogators to get a desired result.”
Ironically, the Criminal Justice Reform Task Force (formally known as the Avery Task Force) determined the use of taped confessions and statements offers better evidentiary support, regardless of whether suggestive methods were employed by interrogators.
“This kind of strong evidence can hurt the defense sometimes, but from a systemic point of view, a videotape statement of the interrogation of a suspect is much better than a detective’s couple pages of notes or summary police report, which is not verbatim,” said Dall’Osto, who served on the Task Force. “All the national studies support the recording of interrogations from start to finish.”
While both Dassey and Avery had murder convictions levied against them, only Dassey was found guilty of mutilation charges.
Hersh said that may have been a result of the defense’s strategy, but he did not find it inconsistent with Avery’s acquittal of the charge.
“There were different elements in each case, which produced different theories by the prosecution,” said Hersh.
In the case of Avery, much of the evidence was forensic-based with an emphasis on remains, bullet-fragments and blood stains.
“The prosecution wanted to weave a circumstantial case against Avery, but with Dassey, they already had the confession,” said Hersh.
Kratz conceded that each case was distinctly different, but that both ended with the acceptable convictions.
Birdsall disagreed and called the discrepancies “inexplicable.”
He questioned how Avery could be guilty of murder, but Dassey alone burned the body.
“It made no sense to me, but I would guess that those issues will certainly be brought about in appeal,” said Birdsall.
Dall’Osto did not think any level of inconsistency would warrant a reversal of either Dassey or Avery’s convictions. He speculated that the two juries may have negotiated the extent of the respective verdicts.
“The armchair view of lawyers was that the jury threw the defense a bone on the mutilation charge in Mr. Avery’s case, which also might have been a compromise to get a final unanimous guilty on the homicide charge,” said Dall’Osto.