Monday, December 28, 2015

UPDATED WITH DASSEY REVERSAL: Making A Murderer on Netflix - A Must Watch (Spoilers)

UPDATE 08/13/2016: I wrote in my original post dated 12/28/2015:
I am, however, going to write about the most tragic figure in a documentary full of them. Stop reading now if you do not want a spoiler. Brendan Dassey was an 16 year old intellectually disabled high school student when he confessed to participating in sexually assaulting, murdering and incinerating the body of the 25 year old Teresa Halbach in the fall of 2005. Once you watch the confession, however, you know what Brendan told the investigators in March 2006 was not true. What you are left with instead is incredulity. Incredulity about how investigators, prosecutors, and the courts believed - and continue to believe - what Brendan "confessed" is true.
On 08/12/2016 a Federal Magistrate, on federal habeas petition in Milwaukee, found Dassey's confession to have been involuntary. My strongest opinions from the series were about Dassey and this confession. I understand facts can be twisted and editing by omission can influence a viewer's opinion. However, anyone watching the actual video of Dassey's inculpatory statement was witness to actual, if unintended, manipulation.

The Washington Post summary about Dassey's court victory gives a good timeline and explanation of the new developments in Dassey's case. The 91 page decision including how Dassey's age and borderline intellectual functioning factored into the decision can be read here. There are other things of significance to the criminal justice system, large and small that this decision implicates, but the decision is the right one.

The State will have 90 days to decide whether to re-try Dassey, release him, or appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, in which case the magistrate's decision will be stayed. My bet is Dassey's odyssey is not over and the State go with the last option and appeal.

ORIGINAL POST: I am a dedicated cynic. It is a necessary occupational hazard of criminal defense, and one reason I have stayed away from crime dramas in film, television and podcasts. I did not watch HBO's The Jinx. I did not invest myself in listening to Serial. The cynic in me knows these endeavors come with inevitable baggage, and I spend enough of my time playing devil's advocate.

I do not know why I felt Netflix's Making a Murderer was different, but I took the plunge, watched and came away converted. The 10 episode documentary should be watched by everyone involved in the criminal justice system. It is immersive, intense, and ultimately, tragic. That I now write about it a week after binging through 15 hours of it is evidence of the staying power instilled.

The details, so often absent in documentaries about the system I work within, are present here in spadefuls. Access I find hard to believe existed suddenly unfolds like a bad dream for all to watch and listen. For reasons that become apparent during the film, I think it impossible to be replicated.

With a few notable exceptions, everyone, including at least one criminal defense lawyer, look bad. The prosecutors and law enforcement officers as depicted are nothing like those I know, work with and against. Unfortunately, the institutional forces depicted pressuring defendants and witnesses are universal.

I do not want to spoil the viewing experience. I am, however, going to write about the most tragic figure in a documentary full of them. Stop reading now if you do not want a spoiler. Brendan Dassey was an 16 year old intellectually disabled high school student when he confessed to participating in sexually assaulting, murdering and incinerating the body of the 25 year old Teresa Halbach in the fall of 2005. Once you watch the confession, however, you know what Brendan told the investigators in March 2006 was not true. What you are left with instead is incredulity. Incredulity about how investigators, prosecutors, and the courts believed - and continue to believe - what Brendan "confessed" is true.

Brendan's telephone calls to his mother from jail, one in particular, are heartbreaking.

The documentary takes the viewer inside Brendan's interrogation. Making a Murderer makes the viewer watch extended portions of WHAT Brendan tells the two investigators. We see HOW he comes to incriminate himself. When I tell acquaintances that false confessions happen, even to the worst of crimes, a pall inevitably descends on their faces. "No one could EVER make me confess to something I did not do." is what they say. "Especially something like raping and murdering."

To them I will now say: "Go watch Episode 3 and 4 of Making a Murderer."

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