MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A federal judge in Wisconsin on Friday overturned the conviction of a man found guilty of helping his uncle kill a woman in a case profiled in the Netflix documentary series "Making a Murderer," ruling that investigators used deceptive tactics in obtaining a confession.
U.S. Magistrate William Duffin overturned Brendan Dassey's conviction and ordered him freed within 90 days unless prosecutors decide to retry him. The state Department of Justice, which handled the case, declined to comment.
Duffin said in Friday's ruling that investigators made false promises to Dassey by assuring him "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)," Duffin wrote. The ruling comes after Dassey's appeal was rejected by state courts.
Court papers describe Dassey as a slow learner with poor grades, who has difficulty understanding some aspects of language and expressing himself verbally. He was also described as extremely introverted and poor at picking up nonverbal communications such as body language and tone.
Dassey confessed to helping his uncle Steven Avery carry out the rape and murder of Teresa Halbach, but attorneys argued that his constitutional rights were violated throughout the investigation.
Dassey, who is now 26, was 16 when Halbach was killed in 2005 after she went to the Avery family auto salvage yard to photograph some vehicles. He was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide, second-degree sexual assault, and mutilation of a corpse in Halbach's killing.
Avery was tried and convicted separately in the homicide. Both Avery and Dassey are serving separate life sentences.
Dassey's case burst into the public's consciousness with the popularity of the "Making a Murderer" series that debuted in December. The filmmakers behind the documentary cast doubt on the legal process used to convict both men, and their work sparked national interest and conjecture.
Authorities involved in the case have called the 10-hour series biased, while the filmmakers have stood by their work. Netflix last month announced new episodes were in production to follow appeals by both Avery and Dassey.
Avery made headlines in 2003 when he was released from prison after spending 18 years behind bars for a rape he didn't commit.
Attorneys for Dassey did not immediately return messages seeking comment. A spokesman said the Wisconsin Department of Justice was reviewing the ruling and had no comment.
The judge in his Friday ruling said that Dassey's confession to police in 2006 was "so clearly involuntary" that a state appeals court ruling to the contrary was an unreasonable application of established federal law.
"The court does not reach this conclusion lightly," Duffin wrote.
The investigators did not have any ill motive, the judge wrote, but rather "an intentional and concerted effort to trick Dassey into confessing."
The error was not harmless because Dassey's confession was the entirety of the case against him, the judge said.
Kathleen Zellner, an attorney for Avery, said in a statement that Avery was thrilled to hear of the ruling for his nephew. Avery is pursuing his own appeal.
"We know when an unbiased court reviews all of the new evidence we have, Steven will have his conviction overturned as well," Zellner said.
Joe Friedberg, a defense attorney in Minnesota who was not involved in the case but is familiar with it and participated in a forum on it with Avery's first defense attorney, said he doesn't believe the decision will have any bearing on Avery's case.
"The kid's confession was not entered into evidence against Avery, and I don't think it impacted Avery's trial at all," Friedberg said.