Teenage boys get a lot of ink for their exploits. Any headline involving a teen boy is likely to include a boatload of anti-social behavior.
Not all boys are powder kegs, however. Some are shy and passive. In their hearts, they wonder if they will ever be a man, have a girlfriend, and own a car. Such a boy is Brendan Dassey.
For anyone who has binge-watched the Netflix series “Making A Murderer” as I did, the plight of Mr. Dassey is well known. Dassey’s uncle, Steven Avery, was a suspect in a 2005 homicide which followed close on the heels of Avery’s release from prison for a 1985 rape. DNA evidence revealed that Avery had been wrongly convicted for the rape but the Manitowoc County police, in rural Wisconsin, were not done with him.
When a young female photographer went missing, suspicion quickly centered on Avery.
Brendan was Avery’s nephew who just a few hundred feet from his uncle’s trailer. When police investigators interviewed 16-year-old Dassey, no lawyer or family member was present. Brendon was not an academic stand out, but he had no record of violence. After a few hours with the police, Brendan gave them something they powerfully wanted; a witness to the murder and a powerful narrative that would allow them to charge Avery.
But, Brendan had also implicated himself.
Many in the Wisconsin legal community have spoken out against the “Making a Murderer” series, claiming that it left out much information. Perhaps this is true, but the video tapes of the police walking Brendan Dassey through a confession are self-evidently manipulative and a powerful reminder of what the legal system can do to poor, weak, or ignorant people.
Many of the poor, weak or ignorant that are interviewed by police are fatherless teen boys. The presumption of innocence is easy to suspend for these boys. They are viewed in popular culture to be hormone-fueled animals capable of anything in pursuit of sex. At the prompting of police, Brendon spun a lurid tail of a naked woman tied to a bed, pleading for her life. He claimed to have participated in her rape and murder. No one questioned if he was actually capable of doing such a thing. It would be difficult to imagine the Wisconsin police suspecting a teen named Brenda Dassey of such a crime.
Two Florida boys would not find this police treatment unusual. They are Derek and Alex King.
The King family in Escambia County bears a resemblance to the Avery family in Manitowoc County. Both families are working class white with a spotty educational record and lots of divorces. Derek and Alex King were born to this family then abandoned by their mother. Their father, Terry King, struggled to pay bills and make a stable place for the boys and so they were split up and shunted off to relatives time and again. But by 2001, Terry King had established a tenuous home life for the boys. Derek was 13 and Alex was 12.
Also by that time, Terry had come to trust a man named Ricky Chavis, and Chavis would make himself available to watch the boys when Terry was working. In fact, Chavis was regularly molesting Alex.
In November of 2001, someone murdered Terry King with a baseball bat as he slept in his easy chair. The killer applied such force that blood splatter from King’s head was found on the ceiling above him. The house was set on fire and when the fire department put the fire out, the boys were not there.
A few days later, Derek and Alex were brought to the police by Chavis, who claimed they had showed up at his house that very day. The boys were interviewed by the police with no family members or lawyers present and they confessed to killing their Dad.
To their surprise, they were dressed in prison jump suits and taken to the county jail. The boys were so small that the prison guards worried they might be hurt by falling off the top bunk. Nevertheless, the state announced that they would be charged as adults for murder.
It is here where Dassey’s plight and that of the King boys starts to overlap. The Escambia County police eventually honed in on Chavis, realizing that he had a sexual interest in the younger boy and was a life-long pedophile, but they also had confessions from the boys, long since recanted, that they murdered their father. In the Avery case, the police declined to call Brendon Dassey in Steven Avery’s murder trial, but they had a confession of involvement from Dassey.
Both states then decided to do the unthinkable; they had two trials for one murder with two competing theories of what actually happened. In both states, they had the same prosecutor, one corpse, but different presentation of evidence; two trails for one crime. It should be no surprise that all the defendants, including Dassey and the King boys, were found guilty.
What connection, if any, is there between the law and the truth if the state can try two people for the same murder with competing theories? How can the state claim to have demonstrated proof beyond a reasonable doubt in one case, and then make a completely different case, just days later, also claiming to have satisfied all reasonable doubt concerns?
In the Avery trial, the prosecutor said “one man and one man only” committed the murder; Steven Avery. In the King case, no one disputed the murder was committed with a single bat, swung by one person. Yet, there were four trials, and all three boys were linked to the fate and actions of adult men around them; their co-defendants and the police who recorded their confessions.
In Florida, the whole mess was so convoluted that a judge vacated the King boys conviction and they confessed to a lesser charge, served time in a juvenile facility, and were released.
In Wisconsin, Brendon Dassey is marching towards the end of his first decade in prison. There will be many more. He is not eligible for release until 2048 when he will be 58 years old.
It’s chilling, and it’s why I have told my teen son, if he is ever interviewed by the police, he is to say only one thing; “I want to talk to my Dad and I want to talk to a lawyer.”
But then, my son has me. Brendan Dassey’s mom was divorced from his Dad. Terry King was dead so the King boys had no Dad. The police were certainly not acting ‘in loco pater’.
Teen boys deserve better. We all do.