Making a Murderer brought national attention to the possibility of wrongful convictions and to the legal skills needed to avoid them. Because the legal skills needed to prevail in court are also those tested on the LSAT, one of the pivotal LSAT topics was shown to be critically important to Brendan Dassey’s life and liberty.
On the LSAT, half of the questions are Logical Reasoning questions – commonly known as arguments. These questions present a short argument and require test takers to first identify the argument’s three stated components, which are the conclusion, the evidence, and background information. Though the conclusions are typically easy to spot, students must then determine whether the other facts presented are evidence that lead to the conclusion or merely background information.
LSAT students then determine the argument’s unstated component, which is the assumption. The term “assumption” is a bit of a misnomer when it comes to these arguments. The common definition of assumption, which is accepting something as true without proof, does not quite work for these questions. The assumption in an LSAT argument is a fact or a piece of evidence that is necessary for the author to validly draw the conclusion, but the author leaves it out. The assumption will always fill in the gap and make the conclusion logically flow from the evidence.
To see how LSAT assumptions work, consider this basic argument:
All poisons are harmful. Therefore, Chemical X is harmful.
The word “therefore” signals that the author’s conclusion is that Chemical X is harmful. The only evidence that the author provides is that all poisons are harmful.
However, the author leaves out a critical fact to allow the conclusion to be valid. That fact, which would be the assumption on the LSAT, is that Chemical X is a poison. Until that fact is established, the conclusion that Chemical X is harmful is not yet valid. What if it turns out that Chemical X was not a poison at all? What if we knew that Chemical X was actually water? The argument would fall apart.
Assumptions on the LSAT are undoubtedly important: accurately determining the gaps between the evidence and the conclusion affects the chances of law school admissions. However, in the courtroom, the consequences are much more dire, and assumptions can mean the difference between an acquittal and a guilty verdict, freedom and imprisonment, or life and death.
The 2nd season of Making a Murderer demonstrated the danger of a lawyer leaving an assumption unresolved. Episode 9, entitled “Friday Nite,” features audio from oral arguments in Brendan Dassey’s appeal of his federal petition for writ of habeas corpus before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals. Brendan’s attorneys filed the federal habeas petition in an attempt to show that his incarceration in Wisconsin is illegal and to free him from prison.
While the events of Making a Murderer are mostly located in rural parts of Wisconsin, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals is located in downtown Chicago. During oral argument, a judge asks Brendan’s lawyer if shotgun shell casings were found in Steven Avery’s garage, where the prosecution alleges the murder occurred. Brendan’s lawyer confirms that the casings were found in the garage and the line of questioning ends there.
Steven’s attorney, Kathleen T. Zellner, Esq., later comments on this part of the argument:
[T]he judge asks, “well there were shell casings?” The response [should be] “well judge, this was on a 40 acre salvage yard and there were casings all over the place, because these people were hunting, shooting rabbits, shooting gophers, and all of that.”
I could tell when he asked that question, he’s thinking “well, that shooting must have occurred in the garage,” because, in his garage on the north side of Chicago, there’s no shell casings. But see, you have to tell him that because he’s thinking “oh there must have been a shooting in the garage.”
It’s that misperception and it’s the opportunity to correct those things. And so, I think if the defense had a better grasp of the facts of the forensic evidence, that would have been very powerful.
Essentially, this particular argument given by the prosecution was:
There were shell casings in the garage. Therefore, the murder occurred in the garage.
The assumption in this argument is known on the LSAT as an overlooked possibility. That type of assumption is that we have considered and rejected all other possibilities for the shell casings being in the garage.
Brendan’s attorney had facts available to disprove this assumption and, in turn, invalidate the conclusion. The judge assumed that there are no other possibilities for shell casings being in the garage and found the conclusion that the murder occurred there to be valid. Brendan’s attorney could have provided the overlooked possibility that the shell casings were in the garage due to the family hunting in a rural area.
Once the assumption is shown to be flawed, then the conclusion that the murder was committed in the garage is shown to be invalid. That one conclusion being shown as invalid may undermine other evidence that is essential to the prosecution’s case, which may ultimately lead to exoneration. One thread may unravel the entire cloth. As Ms. Zellner puts it, “that would have been very powerful.”
As Ms. Zellner points out, leaving it up to the judge to fill a gap in the evidence is an extremely dangerous proposition. We cannot be sure that the judge will fill in the gap in the way that wins the day for our client. We also cannot be sure that our adversaries will not pick up on the gaps and exploit them to defeat our arguments. Failing to recognize those gaps and leaving them to chance does a tremendous disservice to clients and can have devastating consequences for their lives.
As we discussed here, the skills you will need to achieve success on the LSAT are also those you will need to achieve success as a lawyer. LSAT assumptions force you to fill factual gaps, which is a critical skill for practicing law. Use your LSAT prep time as an opportunity to develop these skills so that you will present the best possible case for your future clients.