A man who spent 18 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit was convicted Sunday of murdering a photographer, whose charred bones were found in a burn pit outside his home.
Steven Avery, 44, put his head down and shook it when the verdict was read. He faces a mandatory life prison term for killing Teresa Halbach, 25, on Halloween 2005 near his family’s salvage yard.
Halbach disappeared Oct. 31, 2005, after going to the yard in rural Manitowoc County to photograph a minivan that Avery’s sister had for sale through Auto Trader Magazine. Avery had called that morning to request the photo, testimony showed.
A few days later, Halbach’s vehicle was found in the Avery salvage lot under branches, pieces of wood and car parts. Investigators then spent a week on the 40-acre property and found charred fragments of her bones in a pit behind Avery’s garage and in a barrel, along with her camera and cell phone.
Two years before Halbach died, Avery was released from prison after serving 18 years for a Manitowoc County rape that DNA analysis showed he did not commit. He later settled a wrongful-conviction lawsuit against the county for $400,000 and used it for his defense.
Month of testimony
The jury convicted Avery of first-degree intentional homicide and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He was acquitted of mutilating a corpse. The panel deliberated over three days and heard a month of testimony.
After the verdict was read, Halbach’s brother, Mike Halbach, 24, told reporters that he was pleased, despite being surprised by the split verdict, and that he believed his sister’s spirit guided the jury.
“What matters is that Steven Avery is going to be in prison for rest of his life, which ... from the start is what we wanted,” he said.
Defense lawyer Dean Strang said Avery was disappointed but not despondent. He said they plan to consider challenging the conviction within 30 days.
“He’s surely disappointed, but he’s also had experience with the time that can pass sometimes before others accept your innocence,” Strang said. “He’s in effect an old hand, unfortunately, at waiting out the criminal justice system to get it right.”
The jurors issued a statement saying none would discuss the case.
Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey is due for trial next month. In March 2006, he confessed to helping kill and rape Halbach.
Prosecutors then added charges of sexual assault, kidnapping and false imprisonment to Avery’s case. But Dassey recanted his confession and rejected a plea deal that would have required him to testify against his uncle.
The judge dismissed the sexual assault and kidnapping charges against Avery in January because prosecutors could not guarantee the nephew would testify. The judge dismissed the false imprisonment charge last week, saying the jurors didn’t have enough evidence to convict Avery of the charge.
Mike Halbach said his family expects Dassey’s trial to have a similar outcome after it begins April 16.
Defense alleged evidence tampering
In closing arguments, defense lawyer Dean Strang had told jurors their verdict could “set a lot of things right” for Avery because of his previous wrongful conviction.
“The 1985 case won’t matter so much anymore if justice is done this time,” he said.
But special prosecutor Ken Kratz said it was “absolutely improper” for the defense to ask jurors to take the old case into account.
He told jurors the prosecution’s theory of what happened — that Avery backed Halbach’s vehicle into his empty garage, closed the garage door and at some point shot Halbach at least twice and put her in the back of her vehicle.
Avery’s attorneys had claimed Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Sgt. Andrew Colborn and Lt. James Lenk, embarrassed by Avery’s wrongful-conviction lawsuit, planted evidence to make sure he would be convicted of the murder, including putting Avery’s blood in Halbach’s vehicle.
The lawyers claimed the blood came from an unsecured vial from Avery’s appeals of the rape case. They also claimed the bones were moved to where they were found.
A detective in another county told Colborn in the mid-1990s that he had someone in custody who may have committed an assault in Manitowoc County. Colborn wasn’t a sworn officer at the time and transferred the call to a detective. Lenk took his statement on the matter in 2003. Avery was not mentioned.
Colborn and Lenk testified they never planted evidence and had no anger or embarrassment over the lawsuit.