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Lessons for WI Juvenile Justice from "Making a Murderer" Case?

A Wisconsin criminal-defense attorney says the state's approach to juvenile justice needs change. (lilly3/iStockPhoto)
A Wisconsin criminal-defense attorney says the state's approach to juvenile justice needs change. (lilly3/iStockPhoto)
August 24, 2016

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. - The Netflix documentary series "Making a Murderer" drew national attention to the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach. Steven Avery was convicted of the murder, and Avery's nephew, Brendan Dassey, who was 16 at the time, was tried and convicted in adult court of helping Avery commit the crime. But now, a federal judge has thrown out Dassey's so-called confession, and opened the possibility that Dassey will be set free.

Sheboygan criminal defense attorney Casey Hoff said Dassey should not have been tried in adult court.

"The problem with that is that we have so much medical and scientific research that shows that juveniles simply do not have the brain development that adults have," he said. "In males, it can be in the mid-20s when they have a fully formed brain, depending on the scientific research that you look at."

Hoff and others think juveniles should not be tried in adult court. Supporters of trying juveniles as adults have said that if a young person commits a heinous crime, they're acting as an adult and should be treated that way.

According to Hoff, wrongful juvenile convictions because of forced confessions happen more often than most people think.

"We know it because we have people that have confessed to crimes - so-called confessions - that later were exonerated by DNA evidence," he said. "So this isn't something that just happens extremely rarely. Unfortunately, it happens far too often than we might like to admit."

In Dassey's case, the federal judge ruled that the so-called confession was coaxed out of the special-education student by police who coerced him.

Hoff referenced another current high-profile Wisconsin case involving two young girls from Waukesha, accused of stabbing their young friend multiple times to please a fictional character.

"You've seen this in the Slender Man decision where you had, I believe, it was the 12-year-old girls that are now being tried as adults," he said. "They simply do not have the same cognitive and decision-making and appreciation of risks and consequences as adults do. It doesn't mean that we shouldn't hold juveniles accountable when they commit horrendous crimes."

Hoff agreed with the girls' attorney, who said that in the adult justice system, the young girls will not get the counseling and social services help that they need.

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI