Convoluted Brian

the weBlog of Brian McCorkle

The Importance of Understanding

Lingering Questions – Introduction

After the release of Steven Avery in September, 2003 from his wrongful incarceration, Avery became to a poster child for wrongful convictions. The case that led to the wrongful conviction was a 1985 sexual assault in Manitowoc County.

The then Manitowoc County Sheriff immediately concluded that Avery was the perpetrator and guided the victim to that end. The basis for Sheriff Tom Kocerek’s belief was a statement from a deputy, a neighbor of Avery, that a verbal description sounded like Steven Avery.

Investigators for the Sheriff managed to fool people, including the trial court judge, into believing that their ability to drive fast and shop without children and without making purchases was real evidence undermining Avery’s alibi. Avery was checking out in a Shopko Store with along with his children, including newborn twins, about an hour after the crime was committed. The deputies completed their speeding drive from the crime scene to the store and walked through the checkout in about one hour.

After Avery’s release, the Wisconsin Attorney General issued a report on the incident and concluded that all was right. Although the report documented information shared between the various police agencies in Manitowoc County, the report concluded there was no communication between departments. The report writer completely ignored the fact that Sheriff Kocerek arranged a photo array without consulting the sketch provided with cooperation from the victim. The report author minimized the effect and meaning of the sheriff conducting numerous closed door meetings with the victim.

One great abuse demonstrated with the management of the 1985 investigation was the ability of law enforcement to coerce a victim to identify the wrong person. The Attorney General’s report totally ignored that along with the subsequent anguish of the victim. She didn’t realize that the Manitowoc County sheriff manipulated and coerced her identifications. The State of Wisconsin considered her treatment and victimization by authorities as inconsequential.

Teresa Halbach was reported missing on 3 November, 2005. Her last known sighting was by Steven Avery and other witnesses on 31 October, 2005. She had stopped at Avery’s sister’s home to photograph a van.

Search parties were organized by friends and family of the missing. Police involvement was minimal. There were some ariel searches and deputies interviewed people who had contact with Teresa on 31 October.

A cousin of the missing Pam Sturm, had conducted independent searches in and around Maribel, Wisconsin. On Saturday, 5 November, 2005, she asked for permission to search the Avery Salvage Yard from Earl Avery. After a short walk, Sturm noticed a vehicle offset from a line of other vehicles. This SUV was the only one of the group that had cardboard boxes on the top, and a vehicle hood propped its side. The vehicle stood out.*

Sturm supplied the Calumet County Sheriff, Jerry Pagel, with a partial VIN. The available characters of the partial number were sufficient for a search warrant although a person with Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department felt obligated to add numbers matching the Halbach SUV when preparing the warrant request.

The character of the search changed drastically. Several Manitowoc deputies converged on the newly discovered SUV. Chatter on the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s radio band included the question, “Is he under arrest yet?”

Due to potential conflict of interest, Calumet County took over the search. Roadblocks were placed around the entrance to the salvage yard. Lead investigator Mark Wiegert requested assistance from the Wisconsin Criminal Investigation Division. Special Agent Tom Fassbender was assigned.

Over 150 police joined in to help search the salvage yard. Persons from the Madison Crime Lab were sent to the area. One of these, John Ertl, had the SUV shipped to Madison as evidence, although this was not yet a crime scene. Crime lab personnel were reassigned to examine the Halbach vehicle.

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.

Although the involvement of Calumet County was to avoid conflict of interest, at least three Manitowoc County officers were active in the search. Two of these volunteered to search areas where crucial items were later discovered.

On 10 November, the area officially changed from a search to a crime scene after the discovery of bones around a burn pit.

The Manitowoc County Coroner, Debra Kakatsch, learned of the homicide via evening televised news. She attempted contact with the lead investigators. They did not respond with any usable information or direction. Meanwhile, she began assembling a forensic team comprised of local experts from surrounding counties. Manitowoc County Executive Dan Fischer and Corporation Counsel Steven J. Rollins, ordered her to stop any involvement. They later claimed the conflict of interest.

But, the direct involvement of Manitowoc County Officers in the search and investigation is contrary to that claim. And, the forensic team being assembled was still capable of assistance since they were not from Manitowoc County. The simple solution was to appoint one of the team as the lead coroner. But, the State already had people in mind. Who decided to eliminate local experts from the case?

Some of these behaviors are questionable. It is as if someone had decided that Halbach was dead as soon as the missing person was announced. And, who determined that the local forensic experts were not competent? Were some of the experts drafted by the State more compliant with requests to slant the case?

There are far too many holes in the evidence in case. I don’t believe that Steven Avery is a criminal genius capable of obscuring all but a few obvious items of evidence. There are some things that incriminate him as a party to this crime. But, there are also areas that would make the investigations and conclusions questionable.

Behaviors during the search and investigation are odd. Some parties behaved as this was a crime even before it was. Investigators used the missing person portion of the investigation as an excuse for not being vigilant.

At the Brendan Dassey trial, Special Prosecutor Ken Kratz was fond of stating that this was one of the largest and costliest investigation in the history of Wisconsin. But, did taxpayers get their money’s worth? Crucial items were not examined on the intimation that too much had been spent already.

Some of the concerns I have may not be about matters that affect only the Avery investigation. I’m sure that some of the activity is simply common protocol. But, are protocols reasonable when deputies mill about an important item in missing person search and ignore or unwittingly destroy evidence that could be very helpful?

Other concerns have to do with missing pieces and crucial items that went unexamined. And then, there are the behaviors of investigators that are contrary to conducting a factual and scientific investigation.

Keep in mind that the number of known wrongful imprisonment exonerations is increasing. Many of these convictions were directed at low income accused. Biased and prejudicial assumptions are set in place too early for competent investigations. Could you protect yourself against the resources and the might of the state if you were wrongfully accused?

* The Halbach SUV was obvious in its concealment. It was offset from a line of vehicles. The other vehicles did not have boxes placed on top or things leaned against them. The supposed concealment was not concealing anything. It was only drawing attention.

by Brian McCorkle
posted on 19 August, 2007 at 18:18 pm
in category Steven Avery

Wrongful imprisonment exonerations are increasing. Many of the wrongful convicted were low to middle income people. Can you protect yourself against the resources and might of the state if you are wrongfully accused?

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