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'Making a Murderer' case goes before top US court

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© Herald Times Reporter/Eric Young via AP,
Brendan Dassey is escorted into court for his sentencing in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

By S├ębastien BLANC, AFP

The US Supreme Court on Thursday will decide whether to hear an appeal in a case made famous by popular Netflix series "Making a Murderer" that raised troubling questions about the American judicial system.

Millions of people around the world were transfixed by the gripping documentary series about a blue-collar Wisconsin man and his nephew charged with the murder of a young woman photographer, whose remains were found on the grounds of the family's auto salvage yard.

Opinions are divided on the guilt of the story's central character, Steven Avery. He was sentenced in 2007 to life in prison for the murder of 25-year-old Teresa Halbach.

But many viewers were deeply disturbed by the fate of Avery's nephew, Brendan Dassey -- only 16 at the time of the killing -- who received the same sentence. It is his case the Supreme Court will be considering.

The prosecution's case against Dassey rested entirely on a highly controversial police interrogation of the adolescent -- a young man of limited intellect -- and on his eventual confession.

As cameras rolled, Dassey was questioned for hours, with no lawyer present, by investigators who used questionable tactics to persuade the young man to provide incriminating testimony against himself and his uncle.

Dassey's defenders say the adolescent, pressed by persuasive interrogators and confused by words and language beyond his comprehension, ended up confessing to acts that never occurred.

© AFP PHOTO
Steven Avery was sentenced to life in prison for murder in 2007, in a case that was made famous by a popular Netflix series and is now getting Supreme Court attention

Police 'fed him facts

"Put simply, the interrogators took advantage of Dassey’s youth and mental limitations to convince him they were on his side, ignored his manifest inability to correctly answer many of their questions about the crimes, fed him facts so he could say what they wanted to hear, and promised that he would be set free if he did so. The resulting confession was more theirs than his," said Dassey's lawyer, Seth Waxman, in his petition to the court.

Waxman is a former US solicitor general, meaning he has argued scores of cases for the federal government before the Supreme Court.

It is rare that the high court would take up a case involving an isolated instance of presumed judicial error like this.

But more than 60 prosecutors, in a "friend of the court" filing, urged the justices to take up the case and help "restore the public's confidence in the justice system."

They noted that "Making a Murderer," viewed by millions of Americans, had prompted "a public outcry over the obvious failure of the system."

In 2016, a federal judge in Chicago overturned the conviction of Dassey, who is now 28. A three-judge panel later upheld that ruling, finding that the young man's confession had been coerced.

But last December the full 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the state of Wisconsin, which has argued forcibly against Dassey's liberation, calling him a "serious threat to public safety."

A dissenting judge called that court's 4-to-3 ruling "a profound miscarriage of justice."

On Thursday, the last round in Dassey's long legal battle begins.

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