LOS GATOS, CA. For Immediate Release. By Cody Salfen. Attention binge-watchers (or listeners): the waiting game is over. Netflix has your New Year’s binge-watching game on lockdown. Literally. If you enjoyed Season One of Serial and the story of Adnan Syed and/or you enjoy the gentle art of arm-chair gumshoeing from the comfort of anywhere you have a suitable device, an internet connection and a Netflix subscription, the latest Netflix Original docu-series “Making a Murderer” is the latest and greatest binge-watching-power-drug to hit pay-to-play streaming streets of the good old World Wide Web.
The ten-episode true story series hit the web earlier this month and has since gained a slew of media momentum, attention and buzz. Making a Murderer presents the unique and interesting set of facts and circumstances that comprise the past thirty years of Steven Avery’s life; a Wisconsin man – arrested and convicted in 1985 for a sexual assault – and exonerated by DNA evidence in 2003 after spending nearly 18 years in prison (after efforts by the Wisconsin Innocence Project led to testing of that DNA evidence). The wrongful conviction stemmed from a 1985 sexual assault of a woman jogging along a shoreline – a sexual assault that Steven Avery did not commit.
Avery’s freedom was short lived. The series goes on to chronicle a bizarre, subsequent and seemingly unrelated 2005 murder case in the same jurisdiction. On Halloween day in 2005, Teresa Halbach, a 25-year-old photographer, went missing. At the time, Halbach was a photographer working for AutoTrader Magazine. That same day, Halbach was scheduled to visit Avery’s property to photograph a vehicle Avery was intending to sell. Long story short: Avery was convicted and sent to prison in 2007 for the murder of Teresa Halbach — a murder conviction for which Steven Avery is currently incarcerated in the Wisconsin prison system.
As to the latter case (the 2005 murder), the creators of the series repeatedly point out circumstances and courses of conduct by law enforcement officials handling the investigation that could and should lead the reasonable Netflix viewer and even the most “pro-prosecution” of viewers to logically conclude that the murder investigation and conviction of Avery were tainted and backed by shaky evidence.
Repeated misconduct or mishaps (call them what you will) by government officials responsible for investigating Teresa Halbach’s murder and prosecuting Avery raise serious issues as to whether law enforcement properly investigated the murder of Halbach and whether Avery was given a fair opportunity to defend himself against the murder charge. An apparent series of mishandlings by law enforcement personnel, overly suggestive interviewing tactics, and a trunk-load of what can be construed as instances of prosecutorial misconduct resulted in Avery’s conviction.
Essentially, a small-county local government with an apparent vendetta against Avery engaged in repeated conduct that very well could and may have resulted in an unwarranted murder conviction — unwarranted in light of the fact that the case against Avery was founded upon faulty evidence, arguably wholly fabricated evidence and/or evidence lacking in credibility, which, by its unreliable nature, seemingly failed to establish Steve Avery’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
From essentially day one and minute one of the murder investigation, law enforcement in Avery’s hometown focused their investigative sniper rifle sights on Avery, to the exclusion of a number of other potential suspects and to the exclusion of law enforcement’s exploration of potentially exculpatory investigative leads and information (potentially exculpatory as to Avery). This tunnel vision approach is a practice that can and has been futile in terms of uncovering the truth in investigations of all shapes and sizes.
Throughout the series, Steven Avery presents as a stereotypical middle-America simpleton. His family owns a large junkyard in the middle of nowhere in Wisconsin. A rough family – to put it lightly. Avery maintains his innocence as to both the 1985 sexual assault and the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach.
As mentioned, Avery was convicted of sexual assault in 1985 and spent nearly 18 years in prison. The testing of the DNA evidence from the 1985 sexual assault case not only established that Avery did not commit the assault, but established the identity of the actual assailant – Gregory Allen – a convicted felon that went on to assault another woman after the assault for which Avery was wrongfully convicted. Gregory Allen is currently incarcerated in the Wisconsin prison system for various sexual assault related convictions.
Bad people are still susceptible to wrongful convictions. And, I would even argue that bad people are more likely to be wrongfully convicted when compared to the susceptibility of law abiding members of the general population to be wrongfully convicted. Shady pasts, frequent contacts with police, and police familiarity with frequent flyer crooks can oftentimes cloud a police officer’s ability to objectively analyze the facts in a given criminal investigation and can cloud that officer’s ability make a reasonable conclusion as to the identity of the actual assailant behind a given criminal offense.
Whether this approach is intentionally or negligently perpetrated by the officer is irrelevant. Both conditions equally contribute to creating a perfect storm where the fallout inevitably encompasses wrongful convictions. These conditions produce an environment where wrongful convictions are not only possible, they’re plentiful. And, unfortunately, juries are not immune from falling victim to this approach. This is a perfect recipe for a wrongful conviction.
In Steven Avery’s case, it’s no secret – Steven Avery was no angel. Avery’s background is riddled with criminal convictions stemming from incidents occurring prior to the 1985 sexual assault (wrongful) conviction. Avery was no stranger to law enforcement. And, one past act by Avery is probably the most troubling and most taxing to understand: a despicable act of animal cruelty committed by Avery.
At the age of 20, Avery plead guilty to a charge of animal cruelty after he supposedly poured oil and gasoline on the family cat and threw the cat into a fire. In the documentary, Steven Avery is quick to minimize and explain away the incident by stating, “I was young and stupid and hanging around with the wrong people.” Red Flag? Hell yes. We’ve all been young and stupid. Many of us have even hung out with and/or been somewhat influenced by some “wrong people” for brief periods of time — or maybe longer. But, our explicable not so proud younger moments can never reasonably include torturing animals. Such a practice deviates from any semblance of normalcy and cannot be easily explained, let alone rationalized. At least some studies suggest that cruelty to animals can be predictive of adult criminal activity, including childhood animal cruelty and a potential correlation with instances of serial homicide perpetrated by the offender in his/her adult years — a crime delinquency theory that is oftentimes known as the “graduation theory.”
This is a point in the series that is never fully addressed. The cat incident itself is minimally acknowledged, but improperly addressed by the creators and by Avery. In my opinion, this is the key piece of evidence (as to Avery’s character), that prevents me from fully believing that Steven Avery is a stand-up trustworthy guy to whom I would entrust cat-sitting duties the next time I go on vacation. Does the fact that he tortured a cat mean that he killed a woman in 2005? No. Drawing such a conclusion is dangerous, but drawing such a conclusion is unfortunately all too common in criminal cases where the accused has committed prior bad acts. Everyone wants to believe that a cat killer or animal torturer is guilty of murder. But, killing a cat, in and of itself, arguably does not provide any semblance of definitive factual proof as to whether Steven Avery committed murder decades later. That’s where many juries run into trouble in sifting through prosecutorial smoke and mirrors where prior bad acts and convictions are admitted, which can result in the jury returning a verdict that does not correlate with the truth.
Again, does the fact that Steven Avery tortured a cat mean I think Steven Avery is guilty of murder? No. The point is that I don’t know if he committed the murder. Was there probable cause to hold him to answer for the murder charges? Probably. The physical evidence points to Avery, including the fact that the remnants of the victim’s body were found on Avery’s property near Avery’s residence, the key to the victim’s car was located within Avery’s residence, Avery’s blood was found in the victim’s vehicle, Avery had a cut on his hand, and the victim’s vehicle was found on Avery’s property. And the list goes on.
The issue is the credibility of this evidence. Serious questions arise as to the integrity of almost every piece of evidence utilized by prosecutors to convict Avery. This includes overly suggestive questioning and interrogation techniques employed by the investigators who interrogated Avery’s nephew and co-defendant, Brendan Dassey. As an aside, Brendan Dassey was a minor at the time of the interrogation, his mother/guardian was not contacted or advised that he was being interviewed by police, and it doesn’t require an advanced degree to conclude that Brendan Dassey lacked the intelligence or mental capacity to understand the implications of his statements to police (all circumstances that would have likely resulted in his testimony being deemed inadmissible in most modern court proceedings).
Was this the sloppiest and dumbest killing in recent history? Did Steven Avery actually commit the murder without making any effort to cover his tracks? I don’t know. I do know that the prosecution’s theory as what occurred includes a gruesome scene whereby Teresa Halbach was unclothed and tied or chained to a bed within Avery’s mobile home. Such chaos would inevitably cause Halbach’s DNA to be strewn about Avery’s residence.
Teresa Halbach’s DNA was not located anywhere within Avery’s mobile home. But, why? This is one of the many questions that remains unanswered by prosecutors. Why wasn’t Teresa Halbach’s DNA located inside of Avery’s home? The place where Halbach would have been unclothed, assaulted, and fighting for her life.
I take issue with this. Avery could justifiably be described as a hoarder. By all accounts, Avery is messy. He appears dirty and ill-kept in nearly every video clip and photograph presented. His family owns a junkyard for Christ’s sake! Despite the abundance of crap on the Avery property (inside and outside of the residential structures), I doubt the hoard includes an abundance of cleaning supplies, let along cleaning supplies that have the capability to fully and effectively scrub DNA evidence from a murder scene. The photographs and video footage of the interior of Avery’s mobile home depicts a mess of junk. Not the varietal of mess that would be characteristic of a murder scene. The varietal of mess that would be characteristic of a junkyard owner.
There’s no way in hell Steven Avery had the intelligence, ability, or means to effectively scrub his mobile home for every shred of Teresa Halbach’s DNA. So, being that Teresa Halbach’s DNA was not located within Avery’s residence, the logical conclusion is that Teresa Halbach was never inside of Steven Avery’s mobile home. Logically, this establishes a fundamental flaw in the prosecution’s theory as to the incidents leading up to the death of Teresa Halbach. A flaw that remains unaddressed or unexplained by law enforcement or by the prosecutor that spearheaded the prosecution of Avery.
In my opinion, the evidence presented at trial failed to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Steven Avery committed the murder. This doesn’t mean I think he is factually innocent (or factually guilty for that matter). It just means that the evidence presented lacks the strength or credibility to overcome the prosecution’s burden in proving the case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Again, I can say that the physical and testimonial evidence points to Steven Avery. But, there are legitimate questions as to the integrity of this physical evidence and testimonial evidence. These shortcomings epitomize the concept of reasonable doubt.
The Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office held and (in light of the recent spike in publicity spurred by the release of Making a Murderer) likely still holds an undeniable dislike for Avery. This provided a motive for the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office to ignore potentially exculpatory information. And, this undeniably clouded their ability to properly investigate the death of Teresa Halbach.
This, coupled with the fact that the police engaged in conduct that, when objectively judged by all modernly accepted police practices and procedures, falls short of landing with the realm of “proper,” establishes a possible motive and opportunity for the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office to get back at Avery once and for all. Again, intentionally or unintentionally, the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office and the other investigating law enforcement agencies mishandled the investigation. For Steven Avery, this resulted in law enforcement overlooking and excluding potentially exculpatory evidence. The more and possibly most troubling result is that the true killer of Teresa Halbach, if that person is not Steven Avery, could still be walking free.
Time and time again in this investigation, the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies working on the investigation overlooked evidence and failed to follow up on legitimate investigative leads. Leads that could and should have caused reasonable investigators to deviate in some regard from their laser sharp focus and pathway on and to Steven Avery as the prime suspect.
However, law enforcement’s focus on Avery was unwavering. Time and time again, serious questions were raised as to the credibility and integrity of the physical evidence — serious and legitimate questions that were supported by more than mere conspiracy-theorist-esque crackpot defense strategies. Again, many of these questions were never properly addressed or answered — questions that law enforcement and the prosecution refuse to answer. Why? Because they tip the scales in favor of the conclusion that reasonable doubt existed and continues to exist as to whether Steven Avery killed Teresa Halbach.
This dark shadow over the prosecution’s case seems to create a level of spoliation to the investigation and overall prosecution of the case, which should have prevented the jury from returning a guilty verdict. Does this mean I think Steven Avery is innocent? No. Does this mean I think he’s guilty? No. Again, I do not know. And, this doubt that I feel is a reasonable doubt, which, if shared by the jury in this case, means the prosecution failed to meet its burden. Accordingly, this should have resulted in the jury returning a not guilty verdict. In short, this means I do not believe sufficient credible evidence was presented by the prosecution at trial to enable a reasonable jury to conclude that Steven Avery committed the act that caused the death of Teresa Halbach, beyond a reasonable doubt.
Law enforcement, especially the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office, had reason to dislike Steven Avery. His exoneration for the 1985 sexual assault made law enforcement look bad. Really bad. Law enforcement doesn’t like to be wrong. Especially when such errors fail prevent a serial sexual assaulter (Gregory Allen) from re-offending.
Steven Avery was no friend of the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office prior to the 1985 incident. And, the 2003 exoneration, which exposed the law enforcement agency’s failure to properly investigate the 1985 sexual assault (which undoubtedly led to the wrongful conviction of Avery and undoubtedly led to the preventable sexual assault by Gregory Allen of another female – an assault that would not have occurred but for the sheriff’s department’s failure to apprehend the correct and actual assailant in the 1985 sexual assault case), by no means improved the not so harmonious pre-existing Steven Avery/Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office relationship.
The Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office had a motive to silence Avery. The local prosecutor and Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office apparently experienced a measurable amount of humiliation in light of the national coverage of the department’s mishandling of the sexual assault case that led to Avery’s wrongful conviction and Avery’s subsequent exoneration.
For a brief period, Avery was the Wisconsin legislature’s poster child for new legislation intended to remedy exonerees — Avery was seen at press conferences with legislators and even with the Governor of Wisconsin. All of this exposure made the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office look incompetent and unable to properly undertake the immense responsibility of investigating criminal cases and holding the true criminals responsible for their acts. Was this a motive for the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department to mishandle the murder investigation such that Avery became the guilty party (rather than actually being the guilty party)? Yes. Was this the motive that caused them to handle the investigation in the manner they handled the investigation? I don’t know.
Avery’s civil lawsuit against the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office provides another motive. In 2005, Avery filed a civil lawsuit against the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office in relation to the wrongful conviction (the law enforcement agency that conducted the investigation that led to the wrongful conviction of Avery in the mid-80′s). In the midst of the civil lawsuit, Avery was arrested and convicted in the killing of Teresa Halbach — a crime for which Avery is currently serving time in prison in the Wisconsin Prison system. Coincidence? I don’t know.
Most reasonable viewers should and will conclude that Avery was factually innocent in the 1985 sexual assault case. Why? Because he didn’t commit the crime. DNA evidence essentially proved another man (Gregory Allen) committed the offense. And, Avery was rightfully exonerated.
It is important to remember that even where a law enforcement officer or entire agency engages in a egregious conduct and misconduct, this doesn’t always mean the defendant is factually innocent. Similarly, it doesn’t mean the person is factually guilty. However, such law enforcement and prosecutorial sloppiness and misconduct oftentimes leads to guilty people walking free, despite their culpability. Further, when factually innocent citizens are wrongfully convicted, the true perpetrator of the crime is not held accountable. This creates a measurable public safety risk. This is a point that is oftentimes minimized or wholly ignored by prosecutors and law enforcement when it is shown that their investigation and prosecution resulted in a wrongful conviction.
Regardless of Steven Avery’s factual guilt or factual innocence, the proper action for the jury to take should have been returning a not guilty verdict.
The facts and circumstances as to the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach leave the viewer grappling with the facts and circumstances in trying to determine Steven’s guilt or lack thereof for the 2005 murder of a woman that came to his property to photograph a car. Is Steven Avery a cold-blooded killer? Or, was there someone or some group of people, possibly the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office, who held a vendetta against Steven Avery, which led to them to concoct a situation to frame Avery for the murder of Teresa Halbach?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR. Cody Salfen, J.D. is a California licensed private investigator and currently owns an operates Cody S Investigations (www.CodySInvestigations.com) – A California Private Investigation and Private Detective Agency. Cody has handled hundreds of private investigation cases, including a wide array of criminal investigations ranging from minor criminal offenses such as driving under the influence to major crimes such as sexual assault and homicide/murder. In addition to handling a wide array of investigative matters, Cody has served as a Subject Matter Expert for the CA Department of Consumer Affairs, Bureau of Security and Investigative Services on the topic of private investigations. Cody is a current member of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of Infragard – a partnership between the private sector and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) (“…an association of persons who represent businesses, academic institutions, state and local law enforcement agencies, and other participants dedicated to sharing information and intelligence to prevent hostile acts against the U.S.”).
Visit the official Cody S Investigations website at www.CodySInvestigations.com or www.CodyPI.com. Alternatively, to speak with a member of the Cody S Investigations private investigation staff, you can call the Cody S Investigations San Francisco private detective staff at (415) 932.9278 or (408) 313.0109. Cody S Investigations provides a wide array of private investigation services in Los Gatos and the greater San Francisco Bay Area, the surrounding areas, and investigative services throughout the State of California. This includes criminal investigations, criminal defense investigations, civil investigations, police policy and procedure analysis, police misconduct related investigations, civil rights related investigations, wrongful arrest/conviction investigations, criminal appeals investigations, and various other civil and criminal law related investigative services.
Cody Salfen is a member of the following professional industry associations:
- CALI – California Association of Licensed Investigators
- PICA – Professional Investigators Association of California
- DIA – California Defense Investigators Association
- NCISS – National Council of Investigation and Security Services
- WAD – World Association of Detectives
In addition, Cody founded and operates Cody S & Associates, Inc. (www.CSI-Legal-Services.com) a security training, firearms training, security consulting, and CA Dept. of Justice and FBI approved Live Scan Fingerprinting Services.
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