On Friday (August 12, 2016), a federal judge in Wisconsin overturned the murder and sexual assault conviction of Brendan Dassey, and ordered his release from prison unless prosecutors schedule a new trial within 90 days.
Dassey and his uncle, Steven Avery, were convicted for photographer Teresa Halbach’s 2005 murder and sentenced to life in prison, but their case became the subject of international attention thanks to the Netflix docuseries Making A Murderer.
At the time of Halbach’s murder, Avery was just two years out of prison after serving 18 years for a rape he did not commit, and was on the brink of winning a $36 million lawsuit against Manitowoc County and its County Sheriff’s Department. The Netflix series gave credence to the theory that Avery was framed in order to thwart the lawsuit.
Brendan Dassey, meanwhile, has a developmental disability. As an advocate, we thought you’d be interested in this statement from The Arc of the United States regarding the judge’s decision to overturn his conviction. How people with I/DD are treated within the criminal justice system is a critical issue – and worth your time and attention.
Washington, DC – The Arc, the nation’s largest civil rights organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD) and their families, released the following statement on the news that a judge has overturned the murder conviction of Brendan Dassey:
“This must be a bittersweet ruling for Brendan Dassey and his family. Brendan’s experience has been unique, thanks to Making a Murderer (on Netflix). The documentary revealed to the masses just how easy it is to force a confession from people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Jails are Full of People Like Brendan Dassey
“My hope is that those following this case will come to realize that our jails and prisons are full of Brendan Dasseys, that false confessions are much more common among those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and that there is something we can do about it to prevent future injustice.
“Police officers, investigators, attorneys, correctional officers, and others are not adequately trained to identify people who may have an intellectual disability or how to accommodate their needs, and this is especially critical during interrogations. We still have a long way to go to bend the arc of justice when it comes to fair and just treatment of people with disabilities in the criminal justice system. The Arc is committed to revealing the many forms injustice takes in their lives, and working with those in the system to fix it,” said Leigh Ann Davis, Director, Criminal Justice Initiatives.
While people with intellectual and developmental disabilities comprise 2% to 3% of the general population, they represent 4% to 10% of the prison population. Those accused of crimes they did not commit often face the greatest injustice of all, some losing their lives when coerced into giving false confessions. Long before Brendan Dassey’s case hit mainstream media, Robert Perske, respected author, advocate and long-time supporter of The Arc, compiled a list of people with intellectual disability who gave false confessions to begin documenting these otherwise hidden-away cases.
National Center on Criminal Justice & Disability
The Arc runs the National Center for Criminal Justice and Disability (NCCJD), the first national effort of its kind to bring together both victim and suspect/offender issues involving people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (or I/DD) under one roof.
NCCJD is a national clearinghouse for information and training on the topic of people with I/DD as victims, witnesses and suspects or offenders of crime. The Center provides training and technical assistance, an online resource library, white papers, and more.
The Center created Pathways to Justice,® a comprehensive training program facilitated through chapters of The Arc, which assists officers to both identify disability, and know how to respond in ways that keep all parties as safe as possible. NCCJD is building the capacity of the criminal justice system to respond to gaps in existing services for people with disabilities, focusing on people with I/DD who remain a hidden population within the criminal justice system with little or no access to advocacy supports or services.
About The Arc
The Arc advocates for and serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), including Down syndrome, autism, Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, cerebral palsy and other diagnoses. The Arc has a network of more than 650 chapters across the country promoting and protecting the human rights of people with I/DD and actively supporting their full inclusion and participation in the community throughout their lifetimes and without regard to diagnosis.