Making a Murderer exposes the systemic corruption that occurred throughout a thirty year span in the Steven Avery case in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Viewers get a rare look at what goes on behind the scenes of an investigation in which police and prosecutors disregard the rights of the accused to ensure a conviction. I am particularly interested in this case after watching the documentary because I’ve been documenting misconduct for the past five years in a separate case — the Nancy Cooper murder investigation. I have researched it in great depth and have written dozens of articles to expose the official misconduct that contributed to the wrongful conviction of Brad Cooper. You can read more about the case in my recently published book, Framed or in the many articles posted on this blog site. The Avery and Cooper cases are similar in that immediate tunnel vision and framing occurred and no alternate suspects were ever investigated.
Background: In 1985 Steven Avery was wrongfully convicted of rape and served eighteen years before being exonerated with DNA evidence in 2003 — evidence that pointed toward the perpetrator, Gregory Allen who went on to attack other women. The case was particularly egregious because the police influenced the victim with suggestive comments as she was describing the man who attacked her. The officer said “Oh, that sounds like Steven Avery,” then Avery’s mug shot was obtained and a sketch of the photo was drawn despite the fact that the perpetrator’s features described by the victim were inconsistent with Avery’s appearance in eye color, height and build. The victim told police the sketch looked like the attacker and she went on to identify Steven’s mugshot from a photo line-up. After that she identified Steven Avery from an actual line-up and then at trial testified that she was 100% certain it was him.That was all it took to obtain a conviction.
It was later determined that at the time of the attach, police had Allen under surveillance due to his many attacks on women. He was not being watched the day the victim was attacked but police never pursued him as a suspect. Also, eight years prior to Avery’s exoneration, Sargent Colborn of the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Office received information from another department that a person had confessed to a rape that occurred in Manitowoc County and that someone else was serving time for the crime. Colborn ignored information that would have exonerated Avery at that time. Little did he know, that information would become public after Avery’s exoneration.
Teresa Halbach’s disappearance: In October, 2005 Avery had good reason to feel optimistic about his future. The legislators had just approved compensation for his wrongful conviction in the amount of $450,000 — $25,000 for each year Avery spent in prison for a crime he did not commit. As well, his attorneys filed a $36 million federal lawsuit against Manitowoc County. The lawsuit would finally expose the corruption in the case. The officials responsible for their role in the miscarriage of justice would have to answer for it. Each of them were deposed by Avery’s attorneys. The county would not be bailing them out either. They would be financially responsible for the damages themselves. They had much to fear.
On October 31, 2005 — just weeks after the depositions, twenty-five year old Teresa Halbach disappeared. She was a photographer for Autotrader and her last appointment for the day was at Steven Avery’s residence where his family owned and operated a salvage yard. Her car was found on the Avery property four days later. Due to a conflict of interest with the impending civil law suit, the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department was not to be involved in the investigation. A special prosecutor (Ken Kratz) from Calumet County was assigned to the case. In a shocking move, the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department ignored the instruction to stay out of the case and instead volunteered to participate in the search without disclosing the conflict of interest to those in charge of the missing person investigation. The same officers who had just been deposed due to their role in Avery’s wrongful conviction – Lenk and Colborn were there – searching again and again! Imagine the implications. If Avery is convicted, Lenk and Colborn’s problems disappear! The county is also off the hook for the $36 million!
Days after the vehicle was found, it was reported that human bones and teeth consistent with a young adult female were found in a burn pit near Steven Avery’s trailer. Avery’s blood was found in her vehicle and her car key was found on the floor in his trailer, but there are problems with all of the evidence. Keep in mind that police took over the entire Avery complex for an entire week and had clear opportunity and motive to frame him.
1. Key: After six searches of Avery’s trailer, a key to Teresa Halbach’s RAV 4 was miraculously found – by none other than Lieutenant Lenk. An officer testified that the key was not present in six prior searches. The key contained Avery’s DNA and oddly no DNA from the victim was identified even though she touched the key every day. It was obviously planted. It’s actually not difficult to plant mitochondrial (“touch”) DNA.
“Touch DNA usually refers to DNA that’s deposited by the skin onto an object if you touch it,” says Dr. Krista Latham, associate professor of biology and anthropology and the University of Indianapolis.
“However, our study is suggesting that term might be misleading, because what we found is that DNA can be transferred to an object that a person did not have direct contact with.”
In other words, your DNA can actually be found on objects you’ve never seen – and never, ever touched. link
2. Steven Avery’s blood in victim’s car: Avery’s blood in the victim’s car is suspicious and very possibly planted. The defense team found a styrofoam container in the evidence box from the 1985 arrest. Both the outer and inside containers had been taped shut but the seal was broken and resealed with scotch tape. In addition to that, a hole was found at the top of the vial – as if someone inserted a hypodermic needed to extract some of the contents. Detective Lenk’s name was listed on the 2002 transmittal form when the evidence was obtained by the Innocence Project.
3. Bone fragments: The state alleged that DNA from a bone fragment conclusively matched Teresa Halbach’s DNA profile; however it is misleading because crime lab analyst Sherry Culhane testified that she could not state conclusively that the bones were Teresa’s (update: DNA report). She cited a statistic that the odds of the DNA belonging to someone other than Teresa were one in a billion, but recent literature suggests that statistics have been misstated in many cases.
DNA testing has long been regarded as a highly reliable forensic tool that has proven invaluable in countless criminal investigation cases – but just how easy is it for a mistake to be made ? Officials at the Texas Forensic Science Commission recently discovered that labs had been producing inaccurate results by using outdated protocols when analyzing DNA samples.
In one case for example DNA recovered from a crime scene was deemed to have a million to one certainty of matching the suspect. When the same DNA test was conducted again with the new protocols however this changed to a probability of thirty to one – a very different result. link
She further testified that only 7 of 15 locations matched the known profile. Since it is not a complete match, perhaps the bones do not even belong to Teresa and were placed there to frame Avery. Whether they are hers or not, it is still very likely they were planted. It would take hours to burn a body and have the bones broken down into tiny pieces; yet Brendan arrived at the bonfire at approximately 7 p.m., and Avery’s girlfriend, Jodie called him at approximately 9:00 p.m., so he was already inside by then. That means everything was burned down after two hours? When were the bones broken up into tiny pieces? It just isn’t logical. There does not appear to be remnants of a burned corpse in any of these photos. Please read more about the bone evidence here.
The state alleged that steel belted tires were used to accelerate the fire, and further that bone shards were found “intertwined in the wires.” Does it look like a tire was completely burned, leaving the steel belts behind . . . or does it look like someone placed the wires there?
Bone fragments were found in three locations — the burn pit right outside Avery’s house, a burn barrel outside Brendan Dassey’s house and the quarry. This is evidence that bones were moved, but I am not convinced that the bones even belonged to the victim.
4. Teeth: Police allegedly obtained several tooth fragments from the fire pit. Forensic dentist, Dr. Simley testified that no crowns were found – there was nothing but root fragments attached to the bone. Since teeth are harder than bones and would typically survive a fire, it is very unusual that no complete teeth were found. In most fire deaths, they are able to use dental records to identify the victims – many times they can find fillings or dental work. It is bizarre that the crowns were completely absent leaving little behind to identify who they belonged to. It takes very high heat to disintegrate teeth. Here is a good link to read more about that.
Dr. Simley’s testimony, Brendan Dassey trial
Q: Would you tell us or describe for us the condition of – – uh, these — the 24 tooth fragments and the three bone fragments that you examined?
A. They were all burned. They were all charred. Uh, they were very brittle. Um, again, they didn’t look like normal tooth like we would normally see, and essentially, the crowns were all gone. (emphasis is mine). What we were looking at was just the root structure, which was, um, part of the tooth that’s buried in the bone. There was one portion of a crown, um, but that portion was from a — cuspid or an eyetooth and was not able to be identified.
However, he testified that two root fragments were pieced together and seemed to match one of Teresa’s teeth from the x-rays. Although he could not say for certain that it was her tooth, he said it was “very close” so the jury likely believed that the tooth fragments belonged to Teresa. I am not convinced.
Dr. Don Simley, a forensic dentist from Madison, testified earlier Wednesday that one of the tooth fragments recovered on the Avery property burn pit was “very consistent” with dental records of Teresa Halbach. He said he had to glue two fragments together to match x-rays on file with Halbach’s dental records. Simley, who helped with body identification at Ground Zero in New York and in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, said he stopped short of making a positive identification because he had only a fragment to work with. He noted that the pieces he did analyze were “very close” to a positive identification match. link
5. The manipulation of Brendan Dassey – Brendan Dassey, the nephew of Steven Avery was sixteen at the time of the Teresa Halbach investigation. He would have been part of Avery’s alibi, since he was with him that evening at the bonfire, but beginning in February, 2006 investigators coerced him using the Reid technique over several interviews to provide a wild story with numerous inconsistencies about witnessing Teresa’s murder. The story didn’t even work because it included a bloody scene inside Avery’s trailer and no evidence placing the victim inside the trailer was ever found. Nonetheless, Brendan was convicted based on the baseless but clearly coerced statements. He did not have a parent or attorney present during any of the interviews. It was clear that he was willing to tell them anything so he could just go home but they got what they needed to finish the case against Steven Avery and did not care that they sacrificed a boy’s freedom to “win.”
Probably the worst part of it was the fact that Dassey’s own attorney, Len Kachinsky never properly represented him. He arranged for his investigator, Michael O’Kelly to interview Brendan and at that time he was pressured to draw pictures of the murder event, even though Brendan told him repeatedly that nothing happened. They wanted to push him into a plea deal and hand him over to the state as quickly as possible. Kachinsky was later released when the judge learned that he had not been present during Brendan’s interview with investigators. It’s a very sad situation for Brendan who is still in prison ten years later.
6. Teresa Halbach’s blood: The state had two separate theories about the victim’s manner of death — death by a gun shot wound to the head or violent stabbing (according to Brendan’s created and unfounded story). The problem the state had was that there was no evidence of either – no blood inside Avery’s home or garage, but there will be more about that later.
In the back of Teresa’s vehicle there was a small amount of blood found up against the side of the rear interior. One would expect to find considerably more blood from a person recently shot and/or stabbed but that was it.
7.The magic bullet: Police thoroughly searched the Avery garage on November 6, a day after the RAV 4 was found. They found several shell casings and labeled the location of each as seen in this photo. No bullets were found.
Agent Fassbender told crime lab analyst Sherry Culhane that she needed to “place Teresa Halbach in the house or garage.” She ran a DNA test on the bullet fragment and the control was contaminated which means the results are to be reported as “inconclusive.” Instead, she reported that Teresa Halbach’s DNA was found on the bullet. Of course, it is impossible to trust this evidence.
Despite the absence of evidence to support the state’s theories, both Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey were convicted of Teresa’s murder. After reviewing the evidence, it appears there was a great deal of staging and it’s unclear what really happened to Teresa — how she died or even if she died. She is not listed in the Social Security Death Index (SSDI). It is very difficult to believe that a body was burned at the alleged location, especially since no full teeth were even found. The amount of Teresa’s blood in the RAV 4 was minimal.
Some (including prosecutor Ken Kratz) are critical of the documentary suggesting that it was one-sided. I believe anyone who feels that way is missing the point. While many are weighing Avery’s guilt versus innocence, it’s clear the objective of the film was to expose the corruption that existed at every level in this case and they achieved that. Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey lost their right to a fair trial when the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department became involved in the case. Nothing about the investigation can be trusted, especially in light of the misconduct that occurred during the 1985 case – misconduct that no one has ever been held accountable for. The same players were involved here with so much to lose. It is absolutely outrageous that they were involved, but no one stepped in. The prosecutor could have said “Hey, wait a minute . . . this is concerning, this is inappropriate.” The judges did nothing to stop the unfairness. The judge allowed Dassey’s “confession” even though his attorney was released for failure to represent his client during the interrogations. The judges accepted the evidence obtained by the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department, even though the officers had no business ever stepping foot on the Avery property.
There are numerous articles criticizing the documentary about evidence that was excluded. I would counter that by adding that there is a considerable amount of misconduct that was also excluded from the series. For example, the Manitowoc coroner learned about the human remains found on the property and immediately began organizing a local team to investigate the death, but officials informed her that her assistance would not be needed. This was very unusual and suspicious, especially considering the fact that there are no photos or footage documenting the discovery of the bones alleged to have been found in the three locations.
Avery’s lead attorney, Dean Strang, also tried to elicit testimony that he said would show “investigative bias” on the part of authorities.
But the judge, Patrick Willis of Manitowoc County Circuit Court, would not allow it, saying he feared it would mislead the jury.
Strang said Manitowoc County Coroner Debra Kakatsch would testify that she was “walled off entirely” from the crime scene by Calumet County authorities.
By state statute, she should have been allowed to investigate early reports of possible human bones being found outside of Avery’s trailer, he said.
Strang said the coroner had also received calls from the Manitowoc County executive and the county’s top attorney not to investigate the case. He said they had emphasized that Calumet County authorities had taken control of the case to avoid any conflict of interest, given that Avery was suing Manitowoc County for $36 million at the time.
The Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, however, concluded it was not a conflict for its deputies to assist in the investigation — even though Avery’s suit said the department violated his civil rights when he was wrongly convicted of a 1985 sexual assault.
“I do think that’s a double standard,” Strang said of the Sheriff’s Department participating in the investigation but not the coroner. “I don’t know the reasons, but that’s what juries are for.” link
Investigators also neglected to identify fingerprints found on Halbach’s SUV.
Fingerprints obtained from the vehicle were compared only to a small set of prints provided by Wiegert and Fassbender. But, as assistance in a missing person case these prints were ignored.
Wisconsin has Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). The simple thing to do was to use this system to attempt the identify the recovered prints. There are several yet unidentified prints that were recovered from the SUV. link
The misconduct in the case made it impossible for Avery and Dassey to ever receive a fair trial. Picking through minor pieces of evidence that were not covered in the documentary is pointless.
I’m hopeful that new leads will surface as a result of the widespread publicity from the documentary and that we will finally learn the truth about what happened to Teresa Halbach. I also hope that those responsible for the misconduct in the case will some day be held accountable for their actions.
*** Note: I will be blogging more about this case at https://stopwrongfulconvictions.wordpress.com/ ***