Monday, January 4, 2016

"Making a Murderer" Provides Insight Into America's Criminal Justice System

Over the holiday break, Netflix released a documentary titled "Making a Murderer" which follows the story of a Wisconsin man by the name of Steven Avery.  Avery was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault by the state of Wisconsin in 1985.  After serving 18 years for a crime that he did not commit, the Innocence Project of Wisconsin looked into Avery's case and successfully petitioned the state to reexamine DNA evidence that was retrieved on the day in question.  The DNA evidence not
only ruled out Avery as a suspect, but it confirmed that another man by the name of Gregory Allen -- a man who was actually a known sex-offender under surveillance by the county sheriff's office and the state prosecutors at the time when Avery was convicted -- was, in fact, the man who committed the 1985 sexual assault.  Avery was released from state prison in 2003 after 18 years and pursued a civil suit against Manitowoc County for his wrongful conviction.

During the depositions taken during Avery's civil suit, it was discovered that Manitowoc County actually had received tips from several sources indicating that Gregory Allen -- and not Steven Avery -- was the real criminal, but the authorities willfully ignored those tips and instead prosecuted Avery who they already had in custody.  It should be noted that during the 18 years that Steven Avery was in prison for the crime that Gregory Allen committed, Gregory Allen sexually assaulted at least 2 other women in Manitowoc County.

Just as depositions were about to wrap up in Avery's civil suit in 2005, a young woman named Teresa Halbach was reported missing and last seen at Avery's family-owned junk yard taking pictures for AutoTrader as she had done on several prior occasions.  Days later, a volunteer search party led by Halbach's family discovers Halbach's Toyota Rav-4 parked in Avery's junk yard in plain view.  Manitowoc County, which conceded that it had a conflict of interest due to Avery's civil suit against it, went ahead and searched Avery's property anyway instead of waiting for a neutral neighboring county to conduct the investigation as it initially said it would.  Manitowoc County searched Avery's property for 8 straight days while preventing Avery and his family from entering [Editor's Note: Violation of the 4th Amendment right against illegal search and seizure].  Initially nothing is found, but after several repeat trips back to the property, the same Manitowoc County police officers who handled Avery's wrongful conviction case, just so happened to find the key to Ms. Halbach's Toyota Rav-4 sitting in plain view on Avery's bedroom floor (this is particularly interesting because an earlier search conducted by the neighboring county police officers specifically photographed this same area and showed that nothing was on the floor during their search).  To make matters worse, drops of Avery's blood were found inside the Rav-4.  Avery is arrested.

The events that happen after that are troubling to say the least.

Avery's 16 year-old special needs nephew, Brendan Dassey, who has an IQ of 69, is coerced by police without his parents or counsel present* into making up a story that he and Avery tied Halbach up in Avery's trailer and slit her throat, yet no trace of Halbach's blood or DNA was ever found on Avery's bed or anywhere else in Avery's home.

*[Editor's Note: Violation of the 5th Amendment right to counsel during police interrogation

In a moment that arguably encapsulates the entire injustice of how local authorities took advantage of an uneducated 16 year-old kid, Dassey is heard on a jail-recorded telephone conversation talking to his mother after his alleged confession to the police wherein he tells his mother that the police "got to his head" and would not stop asking questions until Dassey "guessed" the right answers that the officers wanted to hear.  He goes on to tell his mother that when he tried to tell the investigators that he had nothing to do with Halbach's disappearance, they tell him that such statements are "inconsistent" with his prior confession.  Dassey then asks his mother what "inconsistent" means.  His mother replies that she does not know what the word "inconsistent" means either.  

Based on Dassey's illegally obtained "confession," (remember - this is the kid who does not even know what the word "inconsistent" means) the special prosecutor handling the case holds a
press conference to announce that Avery and Dassey are guilty of the crime of kidnapping Teresa Halbach and he proceeds to go through the gory details of her death provided by 16 year-old Dassey which, as later discovered, Dassey admits were completely made up by him to appease the cops who interrogated him. [Editor's Note: Violation of Code of Professional Conduct for Prosecutors - ABA Rule 3.8(f)]

Dassey is assigned an attorney by the public defender's office by the name of Len Kachinsky who was more interested in his re-election prospects as circuit judge in Winnebago County than he was in actually defending Dassey.  Kachinsky, who never seems to consider for a moment that his client might actually be innocent, even goes so far as to have his own investigator coerce a written "confession" out of Dassey to submit to court.  [Editor's Note: Violation of the 6th Amendment right to effective assistance of counsel during a criminal investigation]

These are just a few of the examples of injustice that are showcased by the documentary.  We could be here all day talking about all of them.  Obviously you can google how the trial of Avery and his nephew Dassey turns out, but I will refrain from providing any spoilers here in case you don't know anything about the case and plan to watch the documentary for yourself.

What is most remarkable about the story is that it shows time and time again how the criminal justice system effectively bullies the poor and the uneducated to its will without recourse.  If local authorities want to make something stick, it does.  And nobody stops them.  At several critical junctures, the judges involved willfully disregard facts and issue rulings in favor of the prosecution, police officers toss the Constitution out the window and do as they wish to the accused and their property, and a public defender demonstrates a complete lack of interest in justice for his client.  The only silver lining to the dark cloud of it all is watching Avery's defense team advocate vigorously for their client, but the only reason why Avery had top notch representation is because he settled his civil suit against the county for $400,000 and used the money to hire them.

The takeaway message coming out of this story is one that is all too familiar: the criminal justice system is broken.

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