By Keith Coffman
(Reuters) – A federal appeals court on Friday upheld the murder conviction of a Wisconsin man in a case chronicled in the television documentary “Making of a Murderer,” overturning a lower court judge who had tossed out the original guilty verdict.
In a 4-3 decision, the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled that the murder conviction of Brendan Dassey, 28, in the slaying of Teresa Halbach should stand, court documents showed.
Dassey’s lawyers had argued that their client, then 16, had a learning disability, and that police had coerced him into admitting his involvement in the crime.
Writing for the majority, Judge David Hamilton said Dassey had spoken to police voluntarily with his mother’s permission, and provided investigators with “damning details” about the killing in response to open-ended questions.
“The state courts’ finding that Dassey’s confession was voluntary was not beyond fair debate, but we conclude it was reasonable,” the judges wrote.
Dassey was sentenced to life in prison after confessing to police that he helped his uncle, Steven Avery, rape and kill Halbach, a freelance photographer, in 2005.
The victim’s charred remains were found in an incineration pit at Avery’s home and scrap yard about 80 miles north of Milwaukee.
The pair were convicted of the murder in separate trials.
The case was featured in the 10-part Netflix documentary “Making of a Murderer,” which called into question the handling of the case by law enforcement officials in Manitowac County.
In 2016, U.S. Magistrate Judge William Duffin in Milwaukee overturned the guilty verdict against Dassey, ruling that the conviction was coerced.
In June of this year, a three-judge panel with the 7th Circuit upheld Duffin’s ruling. But state prosecutors appealed, asking for a review by the full circuit, setting the stage for Friday’s decision.
In her dissenting opinion, Chief Judge Diane Wood noted that Dassey was a low-functioning teenager with an IQ in the low 80s and without his confession, the state’s case was “almost nonexistent.”
“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,” she wrote.
In October, a Wisconsin judge denied Avery’s bid for a new trial.
(Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver)