Netflix as gamechanger: a real-life case of post-conviction relief

| Aug 23, 2016 | Post-conviction Relief |

Netflix has had a transformative effect on many people’s media habits. Not that long ago, watching shows in “real time,” over broadcast networks, was still the norm. Now streaming selected shows has changed the game.

But can a Netflix documentary also be a gamechanger for a wrongful criminal conviction?

In this post, we will discuss the real-life Wisconsin case the prompts this question and has given rise to a popular documentary series called Making a Murderer.

Original conviction

In November 2005, a sheriff in rural Wisconsin found the charred body of a female photographer named Teresa Halbach who had been reported missing a few days earlier. Before long, authorities had charged two people with first-degree murder and other offenses.

The people charged were a 16-year-old boy, Brendan Dassey and his uncle, Stephen Avery. Though only 16, Dassey was charged in adult court.

Dassey had not previously been involved at all in the criminal justice system. His uncle, however, had served many years in prison – 18 years – after being convicted for a rape that evidence later showed he did not commit.

In November 2005, Avery had been out of prison for two years and, according to the Netflix documentary, was on the verge of winning a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Manitowoc County authorities for wrongful conviction.

The plot thickens even further from here. The Netflix documentary suggests that Avery may have been framed for the Halbach’s murder in retaliation for the wrongful conviction lawsuit.

Avery contended that Dassey gave him an alibi for the photographer’s murder. But authorities subjected Dassey – only 16 – to aggressive and prolonged interrogation and eventually extracted a confession.

That confession was crucial in convicting both Avery and Dassey of homicide charges in 2007. They were both sentenced to life in prison.

Making a Murderer

In December 2015, Netflix released its film Making a Murderer. The film called into question the tactics used by Wisconsin authorities in seeking convictions of Avery and Dassey.

It has been called the “true story of a false confession.” The film reached a wide, international audience, raising questions about the integrity of the American criminal justice process.

Recent ruling

Last week, a federal judge overturned Brendan Dassey’s convictions for murder and sexual assault. Under the judge’s order, Dassey will be released from prison unless prosecutors retry him – and get that scheduled within 90 days.

It is unclear how the judge’s ruling will affect Steven Avery. But the ruling is a clear win for the post-conviction relief process.

After his 2007conviction, Dassey had pursued appeals in state court, centered on constitutional concerns regarding ineffective assistance of counsel and a coerced confession. Those appeals were not successful.

Eventually, however, Dassey filed for habeas corpus relief in federal court. This was the petition that was granted last week – much to the gratification not only of Brendan Dassey and his family.

The directors of the Making a Murderer series on Netflix were also very happy to hear the news. And they are already planning a follow-up, Making a Murderer 2, focusing on the post-conviction process.

Your situation

If you are seeking post-conviction relief, the Making a Murderer case is a reminder that such efforts can succeed. Talk with an attorney who is knowledgeable about this area of the law about your opportunities and legal options. It may not become a Netflix series, but it could change the game for your case.