Another Netflix-documentary subject could go free, as the nephew of the suspect in "Making of a Murderer" had his conviction overturned on Friday.
Wisconsin prosecutors can file an appeal within 90 days, but for now, the ruling represents a happy ending for Brendan Dassey – and another chapter in the debate on media-driven justice for those accused of murder.
Mr. Dassey was convicted of aiding his uncle during the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach, the Associated Press reported. The judge in a Wisconsin federal court said that investigators obtained the confession by persuading the young man they already knew the details of the case, and “he had nothing to worry about.”
"These repeated false promises, when considered in conjunction with all relevant factors, most especially Dassey’s age, intellectual deficits, and the absence of a supportive adult, rendered Dassey’s confession involuntary under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments (of the U.S. Constitution),” wrote US Magistrate William Duffin.
The Netflix mini-documentary "Making a Murderer" is focused on Dassey's uncle, Steven Avery, but filmmakers also used tapes of Dassey's interrogation by investigators that appear to show him as a vulnerable teenager whose confession, upon which the prosecution largely based the case against him, resulted from investigator coercion.
Based on the documentary portrayal, many fans have demanded "justice for Avery," and some even threatened to plant bombs in a Wisconsin sheriff's office. The Netflix documentary, released in December, inspired so much outcry that a petition for pardon reached the White House, which responded in January that the president cannot pardon suspects of state crimes, as The Christian Science Monitor reported.
Although the documentary has effectively galvanized the public interest in criminal justice, authorities have criticized the medium as both inappropriate and biased.
"Anytime you edit 18 months' worth of information and only include the statements or pieces that support your particular conclusion, that conclusion should be reached,” said Ken Kratz, the prosecutor in Mr. Avery's case.
This case is not the first to make prosecutors wonder whether citizen media participants are interfering with justice. The Peabody Award-winning podcase "Serial," is now credited with inspiring the Maryland Attorney General's office to request a new trial for Adnan Syed, who was convicted in 2000 of murdering his ex-girlfriend, CNN reported. Created by journalist Sarah Koenig, "Serial" persuaded a record number of listeners that Mr. Syed's defense attorney failed to follow-up on an easy lead who could have proven his location at the site and time of the murder.
"The (defense) attorney failed to do the simplest thing and just pick up the phone and call this alibi witness and see if she was legitimate," Syed's attorney C. Justin Brown told CNN's Jim Sciutto. "Without 'Serial' ... I don't think we would have gotten as far as we did."
Media blitz has not always affected the accused so positively. In the case of Robert Durst, a recording from an HBO documentary actually supplied the prosecution with an alleged, accidental confession from the man himself, as The Christian Science Monitor's Harry Bruinius reported.
These are the risks that suspects and prosecutors face whenever media takes their story on, and results can be mixed. In both Dassey and Avery's case, however, Netflix documentary-makers are prepared to continue filming through the appeals process.
“As we have done for the past 10 years, we will continue to document the story as it unfolds, and follow it wherever it may lead,” filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos told the AP.