“Mr. Anders, if you don’t stop speaking like a social worker, and start speaking like a human being, I’m going to ask you to leave my courtroom.”
I was fresh out of college with my Masters degree the first time I was called to testify in court. I was a very young-looking, and very naive, 26 year old social worker, newly hired at Child Protective Services, and I had quickly found myself in over my head.
My job description had extended to far more than I was prepared for. I was representing children of all ages, from young babies born with drugs in their systems to sexually promiscuous teenage girls to fire-starting teenage boys. I had to monitor their care with foster parents, work on reunification plans for the parents, search for adoptive homes, and represent the kids with their probation officers, doctors, teachers, and court officials. I was suddenly writing affidavits recommending termination of parental rights, amongst many other things I had never even heard of before.
And just a few weeks into the job, I had found myself stammering into court from the witness stand about three children I had barely met, reading notes off of old forms about their parents who I had never met, and the judge had quickly gotten frustrated with me.
I appeared in court dozens of times after that, and it became almost routine. I grew accustomed to the small town court system and all of the inter-dynamics. I learned how the judge’s daughter was one of the prominent attorney in town and how she was liable to get prominent cases tossed her way. I learned how one of the lead prosecuting attorneys was sexually involved with one of the lead defense attorneys, and how they would form deals together at home before coming in to court sometimes, arranging plea deals for clients that would serve both attorneys’ best interests. I learned how if you made the scheduling secretary upset, you might find your case delayed by a few weeks inexplicably. And I remember being outraged at the time that these complicated human relationships were affecting the fair prosecutions, trials, and arrangements for citizens who deserved fairness. People came into a courthouse full of unfair office politics that were stacked against them unless they had a lot of money.
Then, years later, I watched the brilliant documentary series Making a Murderer on Netflix. Detailing the complicated trial of Steve Avery in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. After serving 18 years in prison for a rape, Steven was proven innocent of the rape due to DNA testing. While he was in the process of suing for his imprisonment, he was accused of murdering Theresa Halbach, a 25 year old photographer whose bones were found on his property. A confession was coerced from Avery’s nephew, 16 year old Brendan Dassey, who struggled with developmental delays, and both were sentenced to life in prison.
During the course of the trial, as portrayed by the documentary, it shows how the police and prosecutors collaborated behind the scenes to set up the case the way they wanted, using press conferences, (allegedly) planted evidence, and intimidation to coerce, manipulate, and take advantage of the system.
Now I don’t think the point of the documentary is to prove Steve Avery innocent. In fact, a full jury convicted him based on evidence (blood, bones, bullets, DNA, access, motive, etc), and it is likely he is guilty. To me, the point of the documentary is to show how complicated the American criminal justice system is, and how stacked it is against those accused of crimes. Even if eye witnesses saw Avery kill Halbach with his own hands, he still deserves a fair trial.
Some of the public statements made by officials in this documentary made my skin crawl. Appointed public defenders making public statements that presume the guilt of a 16 year old client they haven’t taken the time to meet, police officers saying that they wouldn’t need to plant evidence because if they wanted revenge on Avery they could have simply killed him, bullying tactics against a teenage boy to get him to confess just exactly what it is they want him to confess to.
I’ve never been arrested, but I’ve known many over the years who have. They presume upon arrest that they can trust the police officers and that they will have a fair shot in court granted to them, when the opposite seems to be true.
It is not my intention with this post to villainize every judge, police officer, or prosecuting attorney. I believe that most every individual is there to do a great job and has the best intentions of the individual and the system at heart. But just like I had great intentions as a child protection worker coming in, I ended up overwhelmed and constantly stressed out; I believe that the politics of these systems easily harm even those with the best intentions, making it a very difficult system to operate in.
I don’t know if Steve Avery is guilty of the murder of Teresa Halbach, but I firmly suspect that Brendan Dassey is innocent. There are far more innocent men and women in prisons than we could ever suspect, and there are enough coerced confessions and DNA cases proving innocence over the years to show that false convictions are not only possible, they are common.
How many innocent people out there are behind bars, and what needs to revamped in this system to ensure ethical standards, fairness, and morality?