Can An Innocent Person Be Convicted Of Murder?

The Case of Steven Avery

If you haven’t heard of the latest Netflix original craze that is sweeping the nation, it is a ten episode documentary called Making a Murderer.  Making a Murderer follows the life of Steven Avery, a man from Manitowoc County, Wisconsin whose family owns an auto salvage yard. He and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, are currently serving life sentences for the murder of Teresa Halbach. The ten episode series leaves most who watch it doubting the guilt of either party, but more importantly is a chilling reminder that we are all at the mercy of law enforcement and the justice system, and sometimes the system just fails. The conduct of law enforcement in this case is appalling and frightening, and for this reason has struck a chord with millions of Americans.

Steven Avery and His First Wrongful Imprisonment

In 1985, 23 year old Steven Avery was arrested for the rape of Penny Beerntsen. Even though he had a solid alibi, he was convicted, and served 18 years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence. While Mr. Avery was serving his sentence, the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department received information from a neighboring police department that they might have the wrong person in custody, and that they should be looking at a man named Gregory Allen. The Sheriff’s department chose not to follow up, and Mr. Allen went on to rape others before he was finally convicted of a violent rape in 1995. It wasn’t until Steven Avery had already served 18 years in prison that the Innocence Project was able to secure his release, and shortly after his 2003 release, he filed a $36 million civil lawsuit against Manitowoc County and against some of the officers involved personally for his false arrest and unlawful imprisonment.

While his lawsuit is pending, Steven Avery is arrested again, this time for rape and murder. Very shortly after damaging deposition testimony is given from the officers from Manitowoc County in his civil lawsuit, Steven Avery is arrested and accused of murdering Teresa Halbach, a 25 year old photographer last seen on Steven Avery’s property, where she went to photograph a minivan a family member was selling. This time, there is an overwhelming amount of evidence against Steven Avery, and public opinion swiftly changes and goes against him. Not having any money to defend himself against the murder charges, Avery settled his lawsuit against Manitowoc County and the others named in his lawsuit in 2006 for $400,000, and used that money to hire two excellent attorneys to defend him in his murder trial.

As good as his attorneys were, they did not prevail, and Steven Avery was convicted of murdering Teresa Halbach. Avery’s lawyers argued quite convincingly that the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department framed Avery by planting evidence, including a key, a bullet, and some of Steven Avery’s blood. There was quite a bit of doubt created, especially against Lieutenant James Lenk and Sergeant Andy Coburn of the Manitowoc County Sheriff Department, who were the named officers in Avery’s lawsuit and also happened to be the two officers that found all of the evidence in the second case, in many cases after several searches by other law enforcement officers had revealed nothing. Even though all of this miraculous evidence just happened to be “found” by the officers that were being sued by Avery, even though they were instructed to stay away from the investigation, it was not enough to sway the jury or the judge. The defense lawyers did a fantastic job of pointing out all of the problematic issues with the crime scene and evidence gathering, but to no avail. It might have something to do with the fact that one juror was the father of a Manitowoc County Sheriff’s deputy and an active volunteer himself, and one was the husband of a clerk in the Manitowoc County Clerk’s Office, but Steven Avery is serving a life sentence for the murder of Teresa Halbach. While many disagree on his guilt or innocence after watching the documentary, there is a consensus that he did not get a fair trial.  

The Coerced Confession of Brendan Dassey

The portion of Making a Murderer that has caused the most outrage, however, is the treatment of Brendan Dassey, who is also serving a life sentence for the murder of Teresa Halbach. Brendan Dassey was 15 at the time of the murder and 16 when questioned by the police, and is a low IQ, low functioning individual. His first defense attorney was actually dismissed from his case because of his negligent handling (he allowed Mr. Dassey to be interrogated again by the detectives outside of his presence, and admitted Brendan’s guilt on television before he had ever met him). The footage in the documentary illustrates that Brendan had no idea what was going on in his interrogation, that his mother was not allowed in the room with him, and that the confession was coerced by the officers interrogating him, and then later by an investigator. Brendan’s treatment was so egregious that several attorneys have stepped in to help him obtain a new trial, either on appeal or in Federal court.

Have You Been the Victim of Police Misconduct?

California law enforcement officers are supposed to protect us, but occasionally we need protection from them. Police misconduct is not limited to Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. There are cases in California where the police beat up suspects, fabricate evidence, and lie on the witness stand. Sometimes the police even coerce confessions from innocent people. There are safeguards in place to protect you when law enforcement does not, provided through the Constitution of the United States, and by the State of California. According to the Innocence Project, evidence showing fraud, negligence or misconduct by prosecutors or police is not uncommon in DNA exoneration cases.

You have fundamental rights that cannot be violated by government, including law enforcement, without good reason. The Fourth Amendment right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures is the constitutional right most frequently violated by law enforcement, and may be violated if an officer uses excessive force to arrest you, or searched your home without probable cause or a valid California search warrant. Your Fifth Amendment right to counsel and right to remain silent may also be violated, like the rights of Brendan Dassey. Sometimes people face violations of their Eighth Amendment right to be free from cruel and unusual punishment; this comes up frequently with issues of solitary confinement.  

Call the Ozols Law Firm Today

If you or a loved one may have been the victim of police misconduct, then an experienced San Diego criminal defense and civil rights attorney at Ozols Law Firm can help you. We are standing ready to review your case and help determine the best next steps. Contact us today for your free consultation.