Last week, I spoke to NITA Trustee Tom Geraghty about his involvement in Brendan Dassey’s wrongful conviction case, which was brought to worldwide attention by the Netflix documentary, Making a Murderer. Today, Tom’s colleague Steve Drizin continues that discussion, sharing his insights into Brendan’s situation and what it’s like to work on cases that sometimes make the difference between life and death. Like Tom, Steve is based in Chicago at Northwestern’s Bluhm Legal Clinic and has been known to teach at NITA programs from time to time. The work Tom, Steve, and their colleagues at Bluhm perform is (at the risk of sounding treacly here) noble and beautiful—and if it doesn’t get to the very heart of advocacy, then I just don’t know what does. Read on and see if you agree.
I don’t think too many people outside Wisconsin were aware of the Steven Avery case, nor, of course, of the grave miscarriage of justice in the case of his nephew Brendan Dassey, until Making a Murderer popped up on Netflix. But you, Steve, have known Brendan a long time. How did you become involved in his case?
In October 2007, I was asked by several Wisconsin attorneys to represent Brendan Dassey on appeal. Brendan could not be represented by the Wisconsin State Public Defender’s Office because his uncle had been briefly represented by the office. His only option was a “contract” attorney, a private attorney willing to take the case for the paltry sum of $40 an hour. The Public Defender was having a hard time finding any attorneys who were willing to take the case for so little money, and they were worried that Brendan would not get the kind of representation he deserved. I was a known entity in Wisconsin because I had worked on several cases there, and I had lectured to public defenders at their annual statewide conference about false confessions.
How often do you see Brendan face to face?
Because he is incarcerated some distance from Chicago, we do not see him face to face as much as we would like. We communicate mostly by telephone and have had more contact with him since the film was released.
What is he like?
Brendan is a sweet, naïve young man who loves animals, video games, WrestleMania, and who cares deeply for his family.
What does Brendan understand about Making a Murderer, both as a popular cultural phenomenon and as an agent of momentum in his legal case?
Brendan has not seen the film, but he knows that the film has changed people’s perceptions of him. The most immediate result of the film is that Brendan has now become embraced by legions of Making a Murderer fans from all over the world. They write to him, send him cards on holidays and his birthday, send money to his canteen account, etc. The series was a godsend for him; he leads a much richer life. Every day, he looks forward to receiving mail and spends his time writing back to some of his new friends.
Tom Geraghty remarked that the brief your colleague Laura Nirider wrote in support of this petition “is one of the best briefs I have ever read,” and that you have good reason to be cautiously optimistic about prevailing. How long does it typically take for the court to respond to a habeas petition, and how close to a ruling are you?
That’s a hard question to answer. The case has been fully briefed for eleven months. I think that in a case like Brendan’s, which raises Fifth and Sixth Amendment claims and which requires that the judge and his clerks comb through a sizeable record, it should take longer to decide than the average habeas petition. My best guess is that we will receive a decision sometime in the next six to twelve months.
If the outcome doesn’t go your way, what options remain for Brendan?
He will appeal to the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, and if he loses there, we will file a petition for certiorari to the United States Supreme Court.
You’ve become a specialist in a very particular niche. Can you tell me what case, circumstance, or particular interest of yours led you to becoming an expert in false confessions, particularly those coerced from minors?
In 1995, I agreed to represent (with Tom Geraghty) an eleven-year-old Chicago boy who had been convicted of stabbing to death an eighty-three-year-old woman. The boy had confessed in great detail during an interrogation that took place outside the presence of his parent or an attorney.
When I met him, the first thing the boy told me was, “I said I did it, but I didn’t do it.” And I did not believe him. In order to represent him effectively, I needed to understand the psychology of police interrogations and confessions, how standard police interrogation tactics can lead the innocent to confess, and the ways in which a suspect’s youth makes him or her more vulnerable to such tactics. I read everything I could find on the subject, contacted the leading experts in the world for advice, and began to collect and document cases of false confessions in Illinois and around the country. It took me seven years to get the boy’s conviction reversed (in federal court), but he was eventually exonerated.
Can you talk a bit about some of the memorable cases you’ve worked on that have resulted in exoneration?
My most memorable cases do not involve exonerations. The case that I am most proud of is Roper v. Simmons, the United States Supreme Court decision that abolished the death penalty for juvenile offenders. I did not argue the case or represent Christopher Simmons, but I did co-write an amicus brief in the case. I was also part of a small group of men and women who developed a national strategy to abolish the juvenile death penalty at a time when few people believed that such a challenge could be successful. The Simmons case was the culmination of our efforts. It is my most memorable case because not only did it instantly save the lives of over seventy young men, but it opened the door to future successful challenges to life without parole sentences for youthful offenders that have affected thousands of lives. In the interrogation realm, our amicus brief and my research was cited by the Court in J.D.B. v. North Carolina (2011), a case that has the potential to lead to even greater protections for youthful offenders during interrogations. For me, exonerations are special, but what I enjoy most about innocence work is the way these cases can help to lead to greater protections not only for the innocent, but for those accused of crimes as well.
Being a crucial part of the difference between life and death for a client is well beyond the average courtroom win. Most criminal defense lawyers never have the chance to do what you do. What does it feel like to win?
I love to win. It’s an incredible feeling to rewrite history and to change a forgotten person’s legacy and give them a fresh start in life. Such wins are welcome respite from the daily grind of trying to get an unjust system to own up to its mistakes. I’ve won my fair share of cases, but it is the losses that stick with me—the cases of men and women I believe to be innocent but who, for reasons that are beyond their control, are not able to prevail in court.
Do you still hear from those you’ve helped receive an exoneration or a pardon? It seems like getting out of prison is only the beginning of the difficult process of them getting their lives back. What is it like for them in the aftermath?
I stay in touch with many of my former clients. They frequently come by the office, interact with our staff, meet with our social workers, speak in our classes, come to our holiday parties, etc. Northwestern’s Clinic is a safe haven for them, and many find comfort there and support from our faculty, staff, and students. Some of our clients struggle when they come out, but our former clients are often there to help them find their way. Life after exoneration is extremely difficult, especially for offenders who were only teenagers when they were arrested for their crimes. They never really learned what it meant to be an adult and were often deprived of the kinds of role models who could help them make the transition from adolescence to adulthood.
How do you celebrate a victory?
A colleague of mine, Jane Raley, instituted a beautiful tradition at the Center on Wrongful Convictions. We have a communal celebration to welcome our clients back to the free world. It’s known as the “rose ceremony.” We assemble our exonerees and their families; gather the attorneys, social workers, investigators, and students who worked on the case; buy a bunch of roses and invite people to pick a rose, present it to the exoneree, and say a few words to him or her. Then we cut a big cake and eat and drink.
I’ll go out on a limb here and assume that work this important is exhausting and demanding both professionally and personally. What practices or habits do you rely on to stay well, healthy, and happy?
This work is exhausting and demanding, and I can tend to be a workaholic. I have never achieved the perfect balance between work, play, and family time. I try to get regular exercise and make it a practice not to talk about my cases at home unless my wife and kids ask me about them. These days, I get great joy from my new puppy, a Portuguese water dog named Bernie, the first dog I have ever owned.
Who are your heroes?
I have many heroes, but the ones that I admire most tend to be “unsung” heroes. Tom Geraghty would be at or near the top of my list. He’s been Director of the Clinic at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law for forty years. He taught me most of what I know about juvenile and criminal law and clinical teaching. Stephen Harper, a former public defender from Miami, whose work on capital cases and as a juvenile defender made him the right person at the right time to lead the effort to abolish the juvenile death penalty, is another. And a third would be Clyde Kennard. Clyde was an African–American veteran who was framed for a burglary he did not commit in the late 1950s in Mississippi and sentenced to seven years hard labor in Parchman, the state’s maximum security facility. His real “crime” was that he insisted on trying to enroll in Mississippi Southern College (now the University of Southern Mississippi) at a time when segregationists were making their last stand against integration. I was fortunate to work on his posthumous exoneration and to learn about a civil rights hero whose story is often overlooked.
Enjoy this interview? Find more of our “Asked and Answered” interview posts with NITA personalities here on The Legal Advocate.