The United States Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It came into force in 1789 and has been amended since to meet the changing needs of the country since the eighteenth century. As of February 2011, there are twenty-seven amendments. The main purpose of the Constitution is to protect an individual’s freedoms. It was also created to place government’s power in the hands of the citizens and limits the power of the government. Most notable, is the Fifth Amendment which states that no person shall be deprived life, liberty, or property without due process of the law. All Americans should have equal rights in a criminal trial, and no person shall be treated unequally, or any prejudicial treatment shall be given. Additionally, Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment states in pertinent part, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws” (US Constitution).
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Without due process of the law, the Bill of Rights, also known as fundamental freedoms and the first ten Amendments of the Constitution, are meaningless. In addition to these parts of the Constitution, there are other freedoms written that the government must abide by. When these freedoms are taken away from people, the government and officials are providing a great injustice to the country. The Constitution also states that officials must not coerce or trick a person into a confession when taken into custody. This is noted in the Fifth Amendment regarding self-incrimination. During the initial arrest and throughout the investigation of a crime, such as murder or rape of a person, government and law enforcement officials are required go through set procedures before taking away a person’s freedoms. Courts determine whether a defendant’s confession was voluntarily or involuntarily based on the facts and the totality of the circumstances. The characteristics of the defendant being interrogated including their mental health and age under which the confession was obtained, the length of the interrogation, as well as conduct of the police is all considered. (LaFave, Israel, & King, 2004.) Confessions can become complicated when police behavior during the interrogation is considered, however.
One common technique used in the interrogation room is called the Reid Technique. First, the suspect is taken into a room secluded from his family. This alone sets the environment of a lonely place and one that could potentially scare the suspect in such a manner that he or she wants to confess just so they can get out of the room. A suspect may not understand that a confession, no matter whether they are guilty or not is extremely hard if not impossible to get out of. Next, the investigator essentially lies saying something along the lines of, “I know you did it, we have proof.” The interrogator then invents an imaginary story, also known as a thesis, perhaps in an attempt into tricking the suspect to make themselves believe perhaps they did, indeed, perform the act. Detectives and interrogators sometimes state the suspect will walk free if they just confess to it. There are many honest and ethical officers and police departments in the United States justice system; however, there are some law enforcement officers who commit misconduct when investigating crimes. These officers and their departments impact the credibility of the honest officers out there. In addition, they can destroy the lives of innocent people wrongfully convicted of crimes.
The Sixth Amendment of the Constitution states that in all criminal proceedings a person is entitled to a speedy trial and by an impartial jury. Many present day American citizens are not completely educated on the nuances of the law. A judge, however, is an expert in law and is trained in analyzing and working out the facts and the truth, because of years spent gathering legal knowledge. Because of this training, a judge can solve complex issues more effectively (H. Iyanger, 2016). A judge, by his training and experience, may find it easy to determine whether a person is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt as based on its legal definition. Since many U.S. citizens lack legal knowledge and are not educated and trained in the law and Constitution, the just way to decide the fate of a person should lie in the hands of a judge rather than a jury of peers.
My paper will explore the legal definition of reasonable doubt and why it matters in criminal law. For a criminal defendant to be convicted of a crime by proof beyond a reasonable doubt, there must be no reasonable doubt present. If there is reasonable doubt, a guilty verdict cannot be given. Vital roles a defense counsel plays will also be discussed. Additionally, a murder that occurred in the state of Wisconsin will be analyzed, and examples of police misconduct and wrongful convictions in said case will be considered. There are many complexities of this murder case that will be discussed as well as an abundance of evidence that was brought into trial that many citizens all over the country viewed as reasonable doubt during the trial. It is because of these complexities that an experienced judge should be the one to decide the ultimate fate of the defendant.
In the summer of 1985, Steven Avery, a Manitowac, Wisconsin resident, was convicted of rape and attempted murder of a woman while she was jogging. He was released from jail and exonerated with the help of DNA after serving 18 years. He filed a 36-million-dollar lawsuit against the Manitowac, WI Police Department, as well as the former district attorney and former sheriff of the town. Steven had a bright future ahead of him with the lawsuit pending and a chance to rebuild his life. While the civil lawsuit was pending, Steven and his 17-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, were arrested and charged with the murder of a woman by the name of Theresa Halbach, a photographer that was hired by Steven to take photographs of a car he wanted to sell on his property, a junkyard owned by him and his parents. Due to a conflict of interest with the pending civil lawsuit against the town, the Manitowoc Police Department was not to be involved in the investigation. However, they performed the entire investigation of the murder. What is more troubling to most is that the same police officers who had just been questioned and deposed regarding Avery’s wrongful conviction in the 1985 rape, Lieutenant Lenk and Lieutenant Colborn were searching Avery’s home and property. Over the past several years, many have read and watched news reports and documentaries on the case of Steven and Brendan and the discrepancies found in the police investigation of this homicide.
The criminal investigation of a homicide is the prime source of what is used in the trial when a suspect is arrested and charged. Without a proper investigation, factual evidence may be overlooked and not all leads, and information is obtained. The first investigator at the scene must identify any scene contamination, as well as the location of any evidence that may later be lost. All officers must make certain that nothing is tampered with as to contaminate any items if they will be taken for fingerprints, for example. In an article written by Dick Warrington, Crime Investigator, he notes that “Any experienced crime scene officer will tell you that the key to doing the job well is protecting the crime scene. In a nutshell, it means securing the scene, limiting access to only essential personnel, and keeping complete and accurate records of everything that happens there.” (Warrington, 2011).
After securing the scene, if there are any blood stains found, samples must be collected and taken in to determine who the blood belongs to. The conviction of Steven Avery primarily rested on the blood that was determined to be Steven’s which was found next to the ignition in Teresa Halbach’s car during the investigation of the scene. Other than that blood in her car, no blood or DNA from Teresa was found anywhere on Steven’s property where it was claimed by prosecution that she was murdered. No other DNA from Steven was found in the car, either. What is suspicious here is that a blood vile of Steven’s that was taken from him in the first case he was exonerated from in 1985 was tampered with as the defense pointed out a pinhole in the cap of the vile. This was shown on a screen to the jurors. This leads to some doubt as to whether Steven’s blood from this vile was taken from the vile and placed in Teresa’s car by another person.
DNA experts note that there is a chemical preservative known as EDTA, which is used to preserve blood samples in crime scene labs. While the defense claimed that Steven’s blood was planted, an FBI chemist testified that a test the prosecution asked to develop failed to detect EDTA in the blood. It was concluded that EDTA was not present in any of blood stains found, therefore showing evidence of Steven’s guilt. However, concerns were raised at trial regarding this test especially how it was possible to develop a test in such a short period of time for the purposes of a trial. Arguments continued to take place as to the problems of contextual bias that might have influenced the DNA testing in the case, as well. (Innocence Project, 2015).
As the investigation continued, Len Kratz, the prosecuting attorney for the State brought into evidence Teresa’s car key that was found in Avery’s bedroom, where the presumed rape and murder took place insisting that she was, indeed, in Steven’s home at some point or that Steven took the key from her. It was concerning to most of the public why her key was found after six searches of Avery’s home, however, and the officer that found the key on this sixth search was Lieutenant Lenk, one of those officers that was questioned about Avery’s false conviction against him in the 1985 rape. Moreover, another officer of the Manitowac Police Department testified that the key was not present in six prior searches. Although the key had Steven’s DNA, there was no DNA from Teresa even though the car key belonged to her.
Why is that? It may appear to a reasonable person that the key could have been planted, especially when it was noted by the defense that the key was found right next to Steven’s bed and in plain sight. Was Steven’s DNA planted on the key? “It’s actually not difficult to plant mitochondrial (“touch”) DNA. “Touch DNA usually refers to DNA that’s deposited by the skin onto an object if you touch it,” says Dr. Krista Latham, associate professor of biology and anthropology and the University of Indianapolis (L. Blanchard, 2015). With the police department’s lab having Steven’s fingerprints and blood from the 1985 conviction, could someone have had access to his file and take his DNA? These are questions that the public had great concern about especially for a man on trial for such a gruesome crime.
Along with these discrepancies and reasonable doubt that the public viewed during the case of Steven Avery, his 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey was on trial for assisting Steven in the rape and murder of Theresa Halbach. Beginning in February 2006, investigators coerced Dassey using the Reid technique. Video tape of Brendan’s confession showed inconsistencies as pointed out during trial. In the first two hours of the interview, Brendan denied the rape and murder of Theresa and being a part of it. After gruesome hours of being in the room with no attorney present, along with Brendan having a low IQ and a learning disability, he appeared to be exhausted by the end. The evidence was clear from the videotape that he was willing to tell them anything, so he could just go home.
Effective Assistance of Counsel is a right that all citizens have as per the Constitution. The defense pointed out that Brendan did not have this right afforded to him. It was argued that Brendan’s own attorney, Len Kachinsky, never properly represented him. Kachinsky arranged for his investigator, Michael O’Kelly, to interview Brendan. This investigator had Brendan draw pictures of the murder event, even though Brendan told him over and over that nothing happened. The lawyer, Kachinsky, was later taken off the case when the judge learned that he had not been present during Brendan’s interview. In Strickland v. Washington 466 U.S. 668 (1984), it was decided that the right to counsel means that the defendant has the right to effective assistance of counsel. It was also noted that if defense counsel’s representation is unreasonable, the performance prong of what is known as the Strickland test is violated. After days of deliberation for each case, the jury came back with a guilty verdict for both. Steven and Brendan are still in jail and both cases are on appeal.
With the mounting evidence brought into any criminal trial, especially murder, both the prosecution and the defense have a lot of convincing to do with the jurors. The judge instructs jurors what the definition of reasonable doubt is; however, many people misinterpret what it truly means. A “reasonable doubt” is a doubt based upon reason and common sense after careful and impartial consideration of all the evidence brought into the case and presented to the court and the jurors. Proof beyond a reasonable doubt, therefore, is proof of such a convincing character that you would be willing to rely and act upon it without hesitation in making the most important decisions of your own affairs” (T. Doyle, 2015). Proof beyond a reasonable doubt does not mean proof beyond all possible doubt. There can be doubts based purely on speculation, which means they are not reasonable doubts. Essentially, reasonable doubt is based on common sense. What is the definition of common sense for each individual person, though? “Proof beyond a reasonable doubt means proof which is so convincing that you would not hesitate to rely and act on it in making the most important decisions in your own lives” (T. Frist, 1099). The juror’s verdict of guilty shows they all agreed that both Steven and Brendan killed Theresa Halbach based on their individual thoughts of the meaning of reasonable doubt as presented to them by the judge.
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