By Christopher Zoukis
After the Supreme Court wrapped up its 2017-2018 term on June 27, print media and the airwaves were full of analysis of the impact of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement and what the high court had done over the term. Not to be outdone, let’s spend a moment or two looking at the things the Court decided not to do, when hearing appeals from inmates.
Brendan Dassey Conviction
In this Supreme Court term, review was sought of the conviction of Brendan Dassey, the teenager convicted in 2007 of helping his uncle Steven Avery rape and kill a woman, then dispose of her body in the auto scrapyard Avery ran in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. The investigation of Teresa Halbach’s murder was the subject of the wildly popular Making a Murderer series aired on Netflix in 2015.
Brendan Dassey, 16, had borderline mental disabilities when he was grilled by police and eventually confessed to assisting with the crimes Avery was convicted of committing. Many Netflix series viewers thought videotaped segments of Dassey’s questioning showed police questioning feeding him facts he later repeated in the disputed confession.
On appeal, a Wisconsin court rejected the argument Brendan’s confession was not voluntary; he at first had better luck in the federal courts; a magistrate ruled his confession had been coerced, and a three-judge federal appeals panel agreed, on a 2-1 vote.
But his good luck ended when the full 7th Circuit federal appellate court last December reversed by a 4-3 margin, and the Supreme Court on June 25 without comment refused to hear an appeal in Dassey v. Dittmann. As a result, Dassey likely faces at least 30 more years to serve on his lifetime sentence.
Another unsuccessful inmate bid to gain Supreme Court review came exactly a week earlier, when the high court declined to hear the case (Rhines v. South Dakota) brought by an inmate on South Dakota’s Death Row, who argued his death sentence had been tainted by the jury’s homophobia.
Charles Rhines’ Appeal Rejected
Charles Rhines was convicted of murder in 1993 for fatally stabbing a 22-year-old store clerk during a robbery. During voir dire questioning of potential jurors, Rhines’ homosexuality had been noted; all jurors declared they’d be able to judge the case fairly.
During deliberations, the jury asked the judge questions about Rhines’ imprisonment, if he received a life sentence, not a death sentence. They asked, for example, whether he’d be housed among the general population and assigned a cellmate. (The judge declined to respond, saying he had no knowledge and would not speculate.)
Rhines’ lawyers submitted affidavits from some jurors recalling remarks, during decades-earlier deliberations, mentioning Rhines’ sexual orientation. One suggested he’d enjoy being sentenced to life in a men’s prison. (The state disputed the affidavits’ accuracy, said Rhines hadn’t raised the issue in time, and argued neither state nor federal law allowed inquiry into jury deliberations in this case.)
Rhines cited a 2017 Supreme Court case holding evidence of jury racial bias justified a trial judge examining if it had affected deliberations. The state responded no court had made a similar ruling for jury’s stereotypes or bias based on sexual orientation, and the state’s top court had already rejected Rhines’ claim. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal without comment.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014). He regularly contributes to New York Daily News, Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News. He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonerResource.com.