Convoluted Brian

the weBlog of Brian McCorkle

The Importance of Understanding

The Poster Child Effect

After Teresa Halbach was reported missing on 3 November, 2005, police involvement was routine. Deputies interviewed persons that she may have contacted on 31 October, 2005 in Manitowoc County, WI, as part of her freelance photography work for Auto Trader Magazine. A limited aerial search was conducted. No other freelance clients were considered.

Family members of Halbach organized search efforts independently of law enforcement. On 5 November, 2005, one of the searchers asked if she could search the Avery’s Auto Salvage premises in the Town of Gibson. She received permission.

Shortly after the searcher entered the yard with her daughter, she spotted a vehicle that stood out from its surroundings due to partial concealment. A part of the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) taken from the vehicle corresponded to appropriate parts of the Halbach sports utility vehicle (SUV), a Toyota RAV4, VIN. The searcher claimed guidance from God.

Then, the nature and intensity of the missing person case changed dramatically. The one factor that then affected the investigation of the disappearance of Teresa Halbach was the poster child effect.

Steven Avery was considered by many as the poster child for the wrongfully convicted. This was from a sexual assault conviction in 1985. Avery was released in 2003 and filed a lawsuit against Manitowoc County.

In his zeal to make Avery the person responsible for a sexual assault on 29 July, 1985, Manitowoc County Sheriff Tom Koucerek coerced the victim into making a faulty identification. Ironically, the victim had just completed a sketch of the real perpetrator that was fairly accurate. But, Sheriff Koucerek victimized her again when he guided her to identify the man he wanted. The real perpetrator went on to commit more crimes.

Koucerek insisted that Avery would be the only one acceptable as the suspect. He had some help. Manitowoc County District Attorney Dennis Vogel actually gave an alibi for the real perpetrator, Gregory Allen. Trial Judge Fred Hazeltine allowed very questionable testimony from Manitowoc County Detectives that undermined Avery’s alibi.

A technician with the crime lab in Madison, Sherry Culhane, testified that animal fibers linked Avery to the crime. Animal hair forensics was never good science, but crime lab personnel used it nonetheless.

At trial, the victim identified Avery as her attacker not realizing that Sheriff Koucerek and District Attorney Vogel had groomed her to give false testimony.

After 18 years in prison, Avery was freed when crime scene DNA was matched to Allen. It took Sherry Culhane a year after a defense request to complete the test.

Steven Avery lived in a rented house trailer adjacent to Avery Salvage. The name Avery galvanized law enforcement persons to action.

Manitowoc County Sheriff’s deputies were on the Town of Gibson scene immediately after the discovery of the Halbach vehicle. Soon after the potential discovery of the Halbach vehicle was known, chatter on the county police radios asked whether Avery had been arrested yet. Those deputies on the scene gathered around the Toyota, but made no effort to document the condition of the scene or to ascertain what information was available from the vehicle that might assist in finding Halbach. Eventually, over one‑hundred fifty law enforcement people from various jurisdictions volunteered to help.

The citizens who found the RAV4 attempted to open the doors, but they were locked. Yet, when the vehicle arrived in Madison that evening, at least the driver’s door was unlocked.

No attempt was made to determine how the SUV was driven into the salvage yard. John Ertl of the State Crime Lab decided had SUV loaded on a flatbed truck and hauled to Madison as evidence. Investigators testified that this was a still missing person case contrary to Ertl’s action.

Police later testified that dry conditions precluded gathering evidence. But, there was no photographic documentation nor any written reports that would verify that claim. The only photographs of the vehicle were made by one of the citizens who found the vehicle. Ertl testified that he was concerned that moisture would destroy evidence on the SUV.

Calumet County Investigator Mark Wiegert was placed in charge of scene and investigation. He requested assistance from the Wisconsin Department of Justice. Special Investigator Tom Fassbender was assigned to assist.

A roadblock was placed at the entrance to the salvage yard, but other no entry points were sealed. The roadblock became a command post.

The salvage yard and Avery’s home were the subject of several intense searches. Yet, it was several days before evidence related to Halbach began appearing. A key that operated the Toyota ignition magically appeared before searchers during their seventh search of Avery’s bedroom.

Persons offered witness information to Wiegert at the command post and roadblock. Anything that was contrary to Steven Avery as a suspect was discarded. One witness at the trial of Steven Avery gave specific information to Investigator Wiegert which was ignored. She gave this information on the day that the roadblock was set up, but it upset the focus on the desired suspect. The mission was to get Steven Avery.

DNA tests were rushed through the crime lab in Madison, WI. Culhane performed the tests.

The Manitowoc County Coroner learned of the search only from televised news broadcasts. Her attempts to contact the Wiegert/Fassbender entourage were rebuffed. The Manitowoc County Counsel and County Executive belatedly informed the Coroner that she was not allowed to take part. This was an elected official who was prevented from performing her required duties. She had begun assembling a team of medical experts from counties outside Manitowoc County when she was ordered off the case.

After Avery was taken into custody, the then Manitowoc County Sheriff, Ken Peterson, publically stated that Avery would kill again if he were allowed on bail. This inflammatory behavior by a public official is unethical; perhaps even criminal.

Calumet County District Attorney Ken Kratz became the special prosecutor. In Madison, WI, witnesses for the State were assembled for a group meeting and a prosecution team was picked to assist Kratz in what was to be a murder charge. Local medical examiners were not compliant enough for Kratz.

Assistant Attorney General Tom Fallon and Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Norm Gahn joined Kratz as special prosecutors.

There was again questionable work by the Crime Lab. Culhane testified that Fassbender told lab personnel what he wanted rather than respect scientific protocols. An audit of the Madison Crime Lab found that the DNA section was insecure.

Manitowoc County Evidence management was very sloppy. Avery blood from a previous case was found and appeared to have been tampered with. What was claimed to be a slam dunk conviction developed problems. The prosecution was forced to railroad Avery’s sixteen‑year‑old nephew, Brendan Dassey, into a false confession to shore up their case.

While this lead to another item of evidence, this was tested by Culhane who violated protocols during the test. The Wisconsin Crime Lab supervisor allowed this protocol violation to be ignored.

The Dassey involvement was also to remove yet another witness with a timeline contrary to the State’s desires. Kratz engaged in demagoguery with a daytime television broadcast claiming horrible actions by Avery and Dassey. This was before any evidence could be gathered to corroborate the claims. No evidence came close to validating Kratz’s claims.

Other items of evidence that should have been obvious were never found or sometimes, not even examined. Prosecutors argued a substantially different theory of the crime at the opening and closing of the Dassey trial. The jury was truly incompetent and failed to attend to details.

During the Avery trial, investigators admitted that they did not follow other probable avenues. Even unknown fingerprints found on the cargo door of the RAV4 were not compared to other than Avery family members and law enforcement personnel.

The unfortunate thing is that this kind of rush to judgment has led to bad convictions. This investigation was a map for forcing evidence to fit the desired suspect. The behavior of law enforcement personal was very close to the behaviors in the prior false conviction of Steven Avery.

It is appalling that so many law enforcement people came out to assist only after it appeared that Steven Avery would be implicated the disappearance of Halbach. Recall that investigators claimed this still a missing person case at the outset. Yet, all parties seemed to believe that making Avery guilty of something would exonerate law enforcement of the prior false conviction. Their concern was not for the victim.

Professional organizations should be able to face their failings and make corrections to prevent the future repetition of the failure. But, some in law enforcement were blaming Avery for the incompetence and blindness of Manitowoc County personnel. This became a behavior that would repeat the errors of the past rather than correct them.

Law enforcement is a very serious and important business. If the attitude becomes us against them or anger at discoveries of false convictions, then law enforcement is performing contrary to the public good.

Hopefully, at least some of the people involved will develop the courage to address the flaws of the investigation and prosecutions. The notoriety of the desired suspect should never influence the course of the investigation and prosecution.

by Brian McCorkle
posted on 17 June, 2009 at 12:55 pm
in category Steven Avery

When the Plymouth SUV belong to Teresa Halbach was discovered on the Avery Salvage premises; the investigation into the Halbach disappearance intensified substantially. Now, the State of Wisconsin could get the poster child for wrongful convictions.

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