Becka Wall – @beckawall
*Note: Spoilers for Netflix’s Making A Murderer Ahead.
This past weekend, I did a binge-watch of “Making A Murderer,” Netflix’s new show about the 2005 trial surrounding Teresa Halbach’s murder, where 44-year-old Steven Avery and 17-year-old Brendan Dassey were convicted for her murder.
I’m not here to dig into the “did-he-or-didn’t-he” arguments for Steven Avery, the entire internet is already doing that for me. Two things I am absolutely sure about is that our criminal justice system is messed up, and Brendan Dassey is innocent.
From the beginning, it was clear Brendan has some mild learning disabilities. His below average IQ, and the fact that he takes special education classes even came up in court. When two investigators show up at his high school, they lead him on for four hours to nudge him into telling the story they want. They promise nothing bad will happen to him if he just tells them what they want to hear. So, he does.
Later that day, he’s in jail and charged with murder.
His attorney – a public defender – is clearly working with the prosecution. When Brendan first tells him the truth – that he had nothing to do with the murder – the public defender’s investigator tells Brendan that’s not what they need, and convinces him to draw a picture of the original statement he gave to police.
Then – and here’s the real kicker – his public defender arranges another meeting with those same investigators. And allows Brendan to be questioned and interrogated without him there.
Uh, excuse me, WHAT?! Any halfway decent lawyer – shit, anyone who watches too much “Drop Dead Diva” – knows you should NEVER allow your client to be questioned by the police without you – the lawyer – present. Especially when your client has been charged with murder.
Though this shitty attorney gets kicked off the case, these taped interviews still, somehow, make their way into court (with, mind you, a section of Brendan telling his mother the investigators “messed with his head” cut out), and here we are today. Luckily, there’s currently a team of incredible lawyers on Brendan’s side fighting for an appeal in federal court. But this never should have happened.
Brendan is 26 years old. He’s been in prison for 10 years for a crime he clearly did not commit. Why? Because he is not rich, he isn’t well-educated and he has a learning disability.
What happened to Brendan Dassey isn’t a unique experience. More than half of people in prison have some sort of a mental illness. 66 percent of prisoners with learning disabilities did not complete high school or get a GED. Our criminal justice system doesn’t have the proper tools and systems in place to protect those with mental illnesses or learning disabilities from being taken advantage of.
Understanding and maneuvering through our justice system takes an educated individual or a very good lawyer, with time and resources to devote to your case – many of whom work for private firms, which charge astronomical fees.
We can do better. We must do better.