MILWAUKEE (AP) – An eastern Wisconsin man’s conviction for killing a photographer on Halloween 2005 after being released from prison for a rape he did not commit was one of the most dramatic criminal cases in recent state history.
Almost a decade later, the story of Steven Avery’s wrongful conviction in 1985 and the murder of Teresa Halbach have been detailed in a book authored by a prosecutor in Manitowoc County, where the crimes happened.
“Out of what otherwise is such a tragic story we should always look for some kind of hope and if anything can come from the whole story is that the criminal justice system can learn something from it,” said Assistant District Attorney Michael Griesbach, who started working for the county in 1991 and was only involved in Avery’s exoneration.
The book, “The Innocent Killer,” will be released Aug. 7 by the American Bar Association. It is slightly different than his 2010 self-published book on the same topic, “Unreasonable Inferences.”
Avery spent 18 years in prison for the rape of Penny Beerntsen before he was freed in 2003 after DNA samples linked another man, Gregory Allen, to the crime.
About two years later, Halbach disappeared on Halloween 2005. Avery and his then 17-year-old nephew Brendan Dassey were accused of killing Halbach and burning her remains on the family’s salvage lot. Both got life terms, but Dassey is the only one eligible for parole – in 2048.
In the book, Griesbach accuses the rape case’s prosecutor Denis Vogel and then-Sheriff Tom Kocourek of ignoring the strong evidence against Allen, including that he was accused of similar crimes on the same beach where Beernsten was assaulted. But Avery, then 23, already had been in trouble – burning a cat and being accused of exposing himself to a sheriff’s deputy’s wife, so he quickly became the prime suspect. The prosecutor and sheriff relied heavily on Beerntsen pointing to Avery in a lineup; they never gave her a lineup that included Allen.
In 2003, then-state Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager concluded that no criminal charges or ethics violations should be brought against any officials involved in the investigation and prosecution of Avery.
Griesbach, who helped the office during Avery’s exoneration, said in a 2011 state bar magazine that the prosecutor and sheriff had “moral shortcomings.”
“Perhaps they failed to appreciate the wrongfulness of their conduct; after all, ridding the streets of dangerous miscreants like Mr. Avery is part of their jobs,” Griesbach wrote. “But regardless of their intent, the devastating aftermath of their actions is a tragic example of the unintended consequences that can flow from a single wrong.”
Messages left by The Associated Press for Vogel and Kocourek were not returned.
Griesbach suggested Halbach might be alive today if not for the wrongful conviction, saying Avery’s prison time exacerbated “his sociopathic tendencies.” He noted that Avery told his wife he was trying to get his life back in line – so maybe Avery would have been successful in changing or going down the same path and landing in prison for a different crime.
He said several law professors around the country have already requested the book and he hopes this will make future prosecutors and attorneys “more aware of the enormous responsibility they will possess.”
Meanwhile, Halbach’s brother, Mike Halbach, is unhappy about the book.
“Violence doesn’t have to be made into entertainment, especially when additional undue harm is caused toward those who were victimized in the first place,” he said by email.
Griesbach said his only regret about the book is if it negatively affects the Halbach family.
Beerntsen wrote the book’s postscript and said she can understand the sentiments of Halbach family, but she hopes the book serves as a learning tool for prosecutors using suspect lineups.
“Not to learn from a case is to invite history to repeat itself,” she said.