Now, I want to talk about one of the least understand subjects connected with criminal investigation: how police actually conduct investigations and how they go amok. If you watch CSI and all those crime shows, you will see perfect investigations: the crime scene is properly handled, every piece of weird evidence is found and analyzed without error in the lab, the police eventually have great clues as to who the suspect is, then he is brought in an interrogated by the best interrogator ever, and, finally, all the evidence is strong and proves the suspect did do it and so he is arrested and prosecuted and found guilty by a jury.
This is Hollywood and this how people expect every police investigation to go down. Reality, however, is quite different. First of all, most cases aren't a big mystery. Police know who did it right away and then they just have to be sure that they do a reasonable job preserving evidence and the rights of the accused. Then, they arrest the guy and he makes a plea deal (because he knows he is going down) or the case goes to court and the everyone goes through the motions and the guy is convicted of whatever he did.
Then, once in a while you have a more difficult case and here is where things can become complicated and go wrong.
The Crime Scene
Let's start with the crime scene: first you have to hope you find the crime scene before days, months, or years pass. Suppose a girl goes missing while hitchhiking in Nebraska. No one even knows she has gone missing for a month. Then, no one knows where she went missing. Ten years later her body is found in a ditch in a cow pasture on the back acreage of a ranch in North Dakota. Unless the killer dropped his license at the scene, you may have nothing to go on. Meanwhile, the killer has thrown all his clothing away, not because he was so bright, but because they got old and dirty (so those fibers you found on her body won't match anything), and he has moved three times from rental places with furniture, so no fibers from his house will match the scene. Unless he took photos of the girl and stashed them in a locker that he forgot to pay the rent on and it is forced open and the photos discovered, police will probably never solve the case.
How about a woman who is stabbed to death in her home and then the house is set on fire? The firefighters arrive and blast the place with water. The knife that was lying next to her body in the living room is now on the other side of the kitchen. God knows what has happened to any other evidence left at the scene; it might have been burnt, drowned or displaced.
Sometimes the family mucks up the evidence. Mom comes home and finds her son hanging naked from the ceiling with porn magazines around him. She cuts him down, clothes him, and hides the pornography. Now the police have no idea that this was an autoerotic death and for the next twenty years, although the police have labeled it a suicide (because the rope marks on his neck match suicide and not homicide), Dad insists his son was murdered and the police are covering up for the killer.
Sometimes a scene has two dozen people tromping through it before the police even get there (like the family, friends, firefighters, EMTs) and sometimes police fail to keep certain people out (like the mayor).
Now, as to evidence. First you have to hope it wasn't destroyed at a crime scene. Then you have to hope it wasn't impossible to find at a crime scene. So a girl's body is discovered in a local park. She has no semen inside her, so the police believe the guy used a condom. They discover 84 used condoms in the park. And they don't even know if the killer took his condom with him. Good luck with that mess. Or a body is found in the trash dump. Try figuring out if anything near the body has anything to do with the crime.
Sometimes evidence is added...staged...and not by the police. This can really throw a case off. Or, sometimes there just doesn't seem to be much evidence...believe it or not sometimes fingerprints just don't take or the killer just doesn't leave much due to his handling of the scene. Sometimes evidence is collected and mismanaged - packaged incorrectly, damaged, lost. Most of the time this is accidental and frustrating. I have worked cases were evidence had gone missing. One time it was a flood where the evidence was kept. Another time a crucial piece of evidence - a toothpick that was found in the victim's hair and likely had the killer's DNA on it - went missing. And then there was the missing trunk of a car with bullet holes in it....kind of bigger than a breadbox, so how was it misplaced? I don't suspect police corruption with these three cases (okay, two out of three), so I have to believe it was carelessness and incompetence.
Another problem with evidence is trying to figure out what it really means, how important it is, and if it is even connected to the crime. Even DNA inside a victim may not be the killer's; it could be some random guy she picked up and he is damned well not going to admit he was with her and make himself a murder suspect. Or suppose upon entering her apartment, a woman finds a man's cap on the floor in the hallway. She picks it up and plans to take it down to the lost-and-found later. She drops it on the table. Then she hears a knock at the door, opens it, and someone enters and kills her. The police take the cap into evidence because no one knows whose it is. Later, someone says a guy two doors down the hall wears that kind of cap and the police go question him. He says he has never been to the woman's apartment and has no idea how his cap would get there. DNA proves it is his cap. Poor guy is in a lot of trouble.
Sometimes the evidence is real evidence but what it means in the crime is the question. The victim is found with a sock stuffed in her mouth. Was the perp trying to suffocate her? Torture her? Or did she start screaming and he was trying to shut her up? The victim is found lying next to her vehicle with the driver's side door open. Was she coming or going when she was attacked? The shell casings from some dozen bullets are both silver and brass. Did the killer mix up his ammunition or did he change clips?
Which brings me to a very important issue: training.
Most people assume a detective receives specialized training in crime analysis before he gets the job. In reality, this training is quite rare. Most of the time, a street cop is simply promoted to detective. And he starts working. He has his training from the police academy but most of that has nothing to do with crime analysis or profiling. He, of course, has experience from years on the job dealing with crime and criminals. He may be very logical or he may have little logic skills at all, but be a great guy to go drink with. Anyway, he now is a detective and he starts working. He learns a lot on the job and, hopefully, gets sent to seminars and conferences now and again, but that all depends on how much money the department has to spare or if he wants to fork it out himself. Maybe he reads books about crime analysis; maybe he watches Criminal Minds. What you usually have when a murder goes down is a crap shoot as to who ends up as detective on the case. As I said before, since most homicides aren't rocket science, these can be closed reasonably well even without much training. However, when those more difficult cases come up, it would be nice if the detective was skilled in crime analysis.
So what sometimes happens is that the poorly trained detective goes with his gut. Guesses what happened. Tries to match up the evidence. And goes in a completely wrong direction. The case either never gets solved or, maybe a new detective gets the case years later, figures it out, but now it is too late to get enough evidence to convict. I have been brought in on numerous cases way too late and, although I can solve the case, it will never make it to court (which is why I refuse to do cold case work anymore but prefer training detectives so that they can keep the case from going cold).
When things go amok:
When the wrong guy gets nailed for the crime, it usually results from poor analysis or covering one's ass. Rarely is it outright railroading for the purposes of a huge coverup like the police officer himself committed the crime or the killer is a relative of the police chief or they were out to get a specific person. The majority of the time it is poor analysis coupled with a possible suspect who seems to fit the bill and a few suspicious circumstantial pieces of evidence that work with him or what seems like a solid piece or two of physical evidence or eyewitness identifications. Almost always the wrong guy is a felon or a major loser or already incarcerated; all of these are the types juries find easy to convict with a good story. Most of the time the guy who gets wrongly incarcerated is someone known to law enforcement early on and just fits right in at the beginning or the case has gone on a long time and they are getting a lot of pressure to close it so they become more and more convinced that a particular suspect could have done it. Kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sometimes, more rarely, in order to salvage the department's reputation or to keep from committing political suicide, a case is close down wrongly. Most of the time no one has a clue; I have seen this with a few cases I have worked and I know the wrong guy was convicted; there is no one to really complain to (if it isn't a popular case, politicians don't care and will tell you to go talk to the police! Yeah, thanks). Unless there is a death penalty issue or a racial issue, it is often impossible to get the media interested or any other particular group. We do need some kind of oversight method but, right now, we don't have one in this country. Of course, to be fair, one reason it is hard to get anyone to listen is because of the number of nutters (and some well-meaning grieving family members) who call up to claim that the police department mishandled the case, is covering up, is corrupt, etc. I have reviewed cases where I end up agreeing with the police department and, even though I lay out a thorough analysis for the family, they go on to claim that I got paid off by the police department and am corrupt as well. The family will then go to another expert and on and on for years because they cannot accept the truth.
The Investigation of Steven Avery
I would say at the time of the first case police department had Steven Avery on their radar because it wasn't an overpopulated area and they knew him well, knew he was a violent psychopath and were just waiting for him to commit another crime, not because they wanted him to, but because they figured one day they would be knocking on his door again. So a woman gets raped and her description matches Avery (he DOES look very much like the actual perpetrator). As far as I know, the police department didn't know about the other guy for years, so it isn't like they had two guys who could have done it and they chose Avery. What they had was Avery and a woman who identified him as the man who raped her. And she swore she had ample time to memorize his face. Well, with no DNA in those days to match and a victim who identified Avery, a violent psychopath, the police thought it was him. So did a jury.
Now, Avery is out and Teresa Halbach goes missing. As I detailed in the last blog, all the evidence led to Avery's door, so the detectives would be derelict in their duties if they didn't go investigate him. My guess is they really would rather have never heard of Avery again because the last thing they probably wanted was to have to arrest him again considering how well that went last time and how nasty the public just might get with suspecting them to be screwing up again (and this documentary proves it could indeed have gone badly).
Lucky for the cops, there was a large amount of evidence and the confession of Brendan Dassey. Enough for a conviction which they got.
Remember what I just said about varying levels of police competency; you can't judge the guilt of a suspect on the perfection of an investigation; you must judge on the totality of the evidence. When you find a whole lot of evidence proving guilt, it shouldn't be erased because of one confusing piece of evidence or one cop's screw-up. The real question is - with the known evidence - does it amount to proving guilt?
Brendan Dassey's interrogation could have been better but it could have been far worse. I find a few things he said were more likely to have been said because the interrogator fed him the information. This is poor interviewing. However, the majority of the interviews were not scripted by the police, were quite freely given, especially the confession he made to his own mother. Even Dassey's lawyer (the one his mother got rid of) believed Dassey was confessing he was involved in the crime, confessed convincingly enough and without undue pressure..that regardless of his level of intelligence...the jury was going to believe he committed a crime alongside his uncle. This is why Dassey's lawyer wanted him to plead out. He was trying to cut the length of his sentence down.
Along with a good confession, all the evidence - ALL OF IT - the victim's last place seen, the car, the body, the phone, the key, the blood, the DNA - ALL OF IT - could be connected to Steven Avery. That is pretty unusual for any case of railroading. Most railroads have minimal evidence; usually just a confession or questionable DNA or a bad witness or some really sketchy circumstantial evidence. This case had an abundance of every kind of evidence linking to Avery.
Now, let's talk about police planting stuff. Let's skip planting the body and the car...too ridiculous to consider. So we have blood in the car and the key. EVEN if the cops planted this, the other evidence is still good enough for conviction. But, let's look at it. The blood vial was NOT used for planting blood evidence. The defense attorney and the documentary makers should be sued for saying this. The blood is Steven Avery's and did not come from that tube. Avery had a cut on his finger and that is where the blood came from. Likely that blood also got onto the key which he most likely wiped off, eliminating Halbach's DNA from the key. Then he got his own DNA on it while hiding it in that piece of furniture , keeping it just in case he needed to move the car. That the key wasn't found right away is not surprising if it was hidden in the back of the furniture in a crack or wherever and only popped out and fell to the floor when the piece of furniture was moved more strongly. Again, sometimes evidence is not immediately found because it is well enough hidden or it is just missed.
I don't believe the police in this case tampered with the evidence. The worst I think they might have done is to feed Dassey some information. I believe the right men are in prison (although Dassey should have gotten a lesser sentence) and all this craziness about this case being about police corruption is a fantasy of the documentary producers and the defense attorneys. I think they all know Avery is guilty but why let a good opportunity slip by just because you know the truth.
Criminal Profiler Pat Brown
January 21, 2016