Did police tamper with a crime scene involving a young woman killed in Wisconsin? Why not move the trial out of a county with a potentially tainted jury pool?
And if Steven Avery didn’t kill Theresa Halbach, who did?
“Once the state takes its best shot, if the state turns out to have been wrong, barring a cold DNA kit that’s conclusive or barring some really credible confession by somebody else, that crime is going to go unsolved,” Wisconsin defense attorney Dean Strang said Thursday at the University of Utah. “It just is.”
Two years after self-financing, couch-surfing student filmmakers released “Making a Murderer,” a 10-episode Netflix documentary centered around Avery, his 16-year-old nephew Brendan Dassey and the 2005 death of photographer Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, the case is still discussed and hotly debated nationwide.
In 2007, Avery was convicted of murdering Halbach. Dassey also was convicted, based on a confession during an interrogation. Both men are appealing their cases.
The trial has been questioned and criticized as being unethically prosecuted, and the documentary has been accused of being one-sided.
At the University of Utah, law students are analyzing the six-week trial and the way the case was handled by the criminal justice system in a course created by professor Shima Baradaran Baughman.
“I wanted to teach this class because I wanted people to know that this is not a story unique to Avery or Wisconsin. Injustice happens to many Americans every day in courtrooms all across the country. In a lot of ways, the Avery and Dassey story is the story of all Americans who confront the criminal justice system — at least those without money,” Baughman wrote in an email.
As part of the college course, students argue motions, examine and cross-examine witnesses, and research the case themselves, diving deeper into evidence not shown in the documentary.
On Thursday, they asked Strang, Avery’s defense attorney, what he thought of the investigation, the trial and the documentary.
“We thought that the case for Steven [Avery] had gone as well as it ever could,” he said.
Strang said he has a “nagging suspicion” that his client is innocent, and that at the very least, Avery was not proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
“And if I’m right, then yeah, there’s somebody out there who killed Teresa Halbach,” he said.
But the state staked its claim on Avery, and no one is going to reinvestigate that case, “barring somebody else confessing credibly out of the blue or having a deathbed attack of conscience,” Strang said.
To those who criticize the filmmakers’ decision to leave some evidence out of the documentary, including one of the prosecutors, Strang said: “Go make your own damn movie. It’s their film. They had the right to make their editorial decisions.”
The filmmakers crammed six weeks of trial into three and half hours of film, he said, adding that he felt they focused on what the lawyers emphasized most heavily during the trial.
And he defended his own decisions during the trial.
Why not move the trial out of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, to find a more impartial jury?
“We thought there was nowhere else to go,” he said.
By that point, the story — a horror narrative that a federal judged later ruled was coerced from Dassey — had saturated the state.
“That narrative was unforgettable,” he said. “You don’t forget a horror movie.”
But in rural Manitowoc County, Strang banked on a segment of the population that didn’t trust the sheriff’s department.
Finding people who “really don’t like the local sheriff’s department or are skeptical of the local sheriff’s department” is “just a reality of rural life, at least in Wisconsin,” he said.
Why were jurors who had a connection with Manitowoc County government allowed on the jury?
“You don’t pick a jury, you get to unpick a few,” he said.
So, after getting to strike seven from the 130-something potential jurors, two connected to the county were left: One, an auxiliary member of the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office whose son was an active uniformed deputy. Another was connected to the clerk’s office.
“You rank order the people you most want not on that jury,” he said. And after striking your seventh person, “you’re stuck with those who remain,” he said.
Why not request a mistrial after a juror left during deliberations?
The odds of a retrial going better than this one were “vanishingly remote,” he said. The Avery family’s money was short to begin with, and they couldn’t afford to retain Strang. He couldn’t financially justify retrying the case, and didn’t know who would be assigned to it.
Did he believe police may have altered the crime scene?
Yes, he said, but he chalked some of the messy aspects of the investigation up to inexperience.
“Law enforcement in this country in general is so decentralized that when you have a rare murder in a rural county, there’s a pretty good chance that evidence is going to be mishandled,” he said.
“Or less than optimal than what trained professionals would prefer,” he added.
At the time of the murder investigation, Avery was involved in a wrongful conviction lawsuit against Manitowoc County. Avery had been convicted of a brutal sexual assault and an attempted murder in 1985, but DNA evidence cleared him in 2003 after he spent 18 years in prison for the crimes. So, the county said it would recuse itself from the homicide investigation in 2005. But did the sheriff’s office?
No, Strang said. The sheriff’s office said it would only provide logistic support but the county’s police officers were “involved up to their necks in the subsequent investigation,” he said.
Do you have any faith left in the criminal justice system?
Sure, he said.
“To give up on the project of justice is to give up on human beings,” Strang said. “As much as I love my dog, I’m not willing to give up on human beings.”