In late 2015, the docuseries Making a Murderer premiered on Netflix, quickly becoming a worldwide sensation. The series featured the case of Brendan Dassey, a client of the Bluhm Legal Clinic’s Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth (CWCY), who was convicted alongside his uncle Steven Avery in the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach. In October, Netflix released Making a Murderer: Part 2, which follows the developments in Dassey’s case since 2015. Brendan Dassey’s attorneys, professors at the Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, Steven Drizin and Laura Nirider, told us about how the success of the documentary series has impacted their work.
Laura Nirider, you represent Brandan Dassey together with Steven Drizin. How was the process of your representation of Brendan?
Laura Nirider & Steve Drizin: We have represented Dassey since 2007, when Laura was a Northwestern Law student. Over the years, dozens of Clinic faculty, students, and alumni have worked to free Dassey, who we argue was coerced as a 16-year-old into falsely confessing to the crime. In August 2016, a district court judge found Dassey’s confession to be coerced and overturned his conviction. The State of Wisconsin appealed, but in June 2017, a three-judge panel of the Seventh Circuit agreed with the district court’s decision, 2-1. The State then requested an en banc hearing before the full court, where they reversed the panel’s decision, 4-3, leaving Dassey’s conviction in place. Dassey’s team appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to take the case in June 2018.
What was it like filming the 2nd Season, coming off the success of Making a Murderer Part 1 and knowing that millions would be watching?
Steve Drizin: There was actually a lot more interaction with the filmmakers this season than before. I would say it was more intense for us this time around because it followed the legal process and our various successes and failures, but it was more exciting because we also got to feature what we do as clinical teachers and how that impacts our students.
Laura Nirider: Before the first season was released, no one knew how much interest the world would have in Brendan’s case, but after season one became a global phenomenon – 20 million people watching it in the U.S. alone – we were aware that the eyes of the world were watching what we were doing, fighting for somebody that we all believed to be innocent, so it kept us on our game. It was also exciting to spotlight the way in which the Law School can play a role in generating the next generation of leaders who are committed to a profession that encompasses work for people like Brendan. It was exciting to give the world a glimpse into that.
What has it been like for the two of you? Do you get recognized in public?
Steve Drizin: Laura has funnier stories. There have been numerous requests for selfies — especially when we go out and we speak about the case — which is new.
Laura Nirider: Understatement of the century! Yeah, I’ve been in airport restrooms and people have talked to me while I’ve been washing my hands.
I’ve been running to catch a flight or crossing the street in downtown Minneapolis and have had people stop me, ask for selfies...
...or just express their support for Brendan — all of which is unusual for a law professor!
Many people have followed the developments in Brendan’s case that have occurred over the last three years, but what will they get out of the show that news stories about court proceedings haven’t captured?
Steve Drizin: One of the reasons we agreed to do the show is because postconviction work, in which we try to free innocent people, is rarely captured on film. People see the final moment when somebody walks out of prison, but they don’t see all of the hard work that goes into that moment, and some of that is featured in season two.
You’ve both done a ton of work speaking about and educating the public on the problem of false confessions, especially for young and vulnerable populations. How has the discussion around false confessions changed since Making a Murderer was released?
Laura Nirider: I think season one of Making a Murderer showed the world what a false confession looks like. People saw that video of Brendan being interrogated...
...and they saw a child who was misled into thinking he was going to go home after confessing to a murder that he couldn’t describe without his interrogators’ help.
To have that awareness spread as a result of Making a Murderer is crucial for the work of a law school, and people who study interrogations, people who care about the way the Constitution protects people being interrogated, and for people who care about the justice system getting it right. We’ve had conversations, not only with defense attorneys but with prosecutors and judges and law professors and ordinary folks all across this country who want to know what they can do to help prevent the problem of false confessions. That has been very gratifying.
Obviously the Seventh Circuit’s en banc reversal of the panel’s decision to grant Brendan a new trial and the Supreme Court’s decision not to grant certiorari were very disappointing. What’s next for Brendan’s case?
Laura Nirider: For someone in Brendan’s position, there are a couple of options. Brendan can file a post-conviction petition raising new evidence either of his constitutional rights being violated, or new evidence of his actual innocence. He also has the ability to file a petition for executive clemency before the governor of Wisconsin.
How has Brendan’s life changed because of Making a Murderer?
Steve Drizin: Brendan doesn’t get to see Making a Murderer, they don’t have Netflix in prison. But as a result of the first season, Brendan’s life became a much richer life.
People from all over the world started corresponding with him, and transformed a lonely and isolated existence into…
Laura Nirider: … one that has some hope!