Reflections on ‘Making a Murderer’

Popular documentary highlights struggle of intellectually disabled in the criminal justice system.

I have recently been watching the Netflix series ‘Making a Murderer.’ As a public defender, there are many moments in the series that resonate with me.

Of course, the initial take away is that the police sometimes get things wrong—hence the original wrongful conviction of Mr. Steven Avery. The follow-up to that is that investigations are often flawed by human error and sometimes by intentional misconduct.

The moment in this series, however, that moved me the most and made me think directly of Rocky Myers’ case is the plight of Brendan Dassey, Mr. Avery’s young nephew. Brendan’s phone calls with his mother, conversations with law enforcement and with the judge, demonstrate the fear, confusion and complete abandonment experienced by individuals with mental limitations when forced to navigate the criminal justice system.

Reports indicate that then 16-year-old Dassey had an IQ of 70 and reads at a 4th-grade level. A phone call between Dassey and his mother records him asking her to explain legal terms his attorney used in talking with him. It was clear from the conversations that Dassey had not sought additional explanations from his attorney—very likely he was too embarrassed to admit he did not understand. Even more devastating, Dassey’s mother could not explain those words to him and Dassey accepts his own assumptions of what certain legal terms mean, which unsurprisingly were incorrect.

In interrogations with police and in speaking with the Judge, Dassey is shown to be easily manipulated and easily confused. Sadly, the police and the judge ignore these signs of confusion and limitations, and push along—resulting in potentially false confessions and in overriding Dassey’s desire to replace his ineffective counsel with new counsel.

Rocky Myers, similar to Dassey, reads at a 4th-grade level. He was in special education throughout his schooling and was identified as intellectually disabled from a young age. His IQ scores in school ranged from 64 to 74, and his most recent IQ score is a 73. Rocky had attorneys throughout his trial and appeals that failed to recognize or concern themselves with his limitations.

They failed to take those few moments to notice that he was lost and afraid. They failed to recognize that he didn’t always understand what was going on. Even worse, (as discussed in another post) his state post-conviction attorney completely abandoned Rocky in the midst of his appeals, and Rocky was held responsible for failing to pursue his case on his own.

Brendan Dassey’s case has shown the world why the criminal justice system should demonstrate special concern and consideration for intellectually disabled defendants. Unfortunately for Rocky, his counsel’s failures have ensured that his intellectual disability was not considered — not by the jury that convicted him, not by the judge who sentenced him to die, and not by appellate courts which affirmed those flawed judgments. The Supreme Court has held that those with intellectual disabilities can not be executed.

If Rocky Myers is executed, it will be in direct violation of this ruling and the U.S. Constitution; and, it will be another example of an intellectually disabled person crushed by the criminal justice system.

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