Like a lot of Americans, our family has been on one side of the law or the other for as far back as we can trace it. Just this week, I got a note from a reader who said he knew my Grandpa Harve, who was a lawman in Hawkins County, Tn.
Mama spent the last decades of her career working as a nurse inside state prisons in Washington and Alaska. She used to say that it was sometimes not clear which side of the bars the bad guys were on.
We’ve had family on the other side of those bars, too. My uncle spent eleven years locked up in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta. He referred to it as the University of Georgia, because, as he explained, he got the best education of his life there. (He robbed a bank shortly after Daddy died).
It was running from the law that first brought our people to the Pacific Northwest. Family rumor is that Mama’s brother robbed a little store up in Christians Bend, TN, and to escape spending time in jail, he ran all the way to Washington State, then sent a postcard to the lawmen back home taunting them “Catch me if you can”, or so that’s the way Mama always told it. A few years back, my son found an old newspaper clipping about that uncle reporting that he was taken into custody in Richland, Washington, just up the road 30 miles from where I live now.
Not sure if that was God’s poetry, but it sure has a poetic feel to it, especially given that’s the same area where I was working as a reporter when I broke the story about our own local sheriff and his corrupt ways. This sheriff liked me as a reporter up until I got wind of a memo he sent demanding that all of his officers cease looking for meth labs in the region. He called me up and left threatening messages on my answering machine, telling me that if I reported that story and the newspaper published it, he would make my life hell.
It wasn’t long after the story ran that nearly his entire 911 staff quit. Seems the Sheriff had been having an affair with one of his dispatchers, a pretty young single mama. There’s no rule that says a people in the workforce can’t have affairs with one another, in fact it happens all the time. But he was married and his wife wasn’t keen on his fooling around, so word on the street was that she wanted the dispatcher fired. The Sheriff began showing up at the jailhouse during all hours of the day and night, looking for reasons to fire the girl until finally she quit, and when she did, so did a bunch of other dispatchers.
What the Sheriff never understood about the meth lab memo and the dispatchers quitting is that I never did go snooping around for those stories. His own people called me up and told me about them. One of his deputies approached me at a social event and made sure I got a copy of the memo he issued. Several of the dispatchers told me the story about his soliciting sex from their co-worker.
On and on it goes.
So I had very little illusions left about the righteousness of the people who are supposed to be on the right side of the law when I began working on the story of the murder of Karly Sheehan. But whatever naive beliefs I may have been clinging to about right and wrong got washed away in the course of reporting that story. I remain convinced that the District Attorney in that case failed Karly when he refused to bring any charges against Karly’s mother. In a very real way, she got away with murder. And the DA’s reasoning – that Sarah Sheehan had suffered enough – remains one of the most egregious wrongs done to Karly’s father.
I have long held that people who put their trust in our judicial system have misplaced that trust.
Just wait till it happens to you or someone you love, that was the word of warning from the defense lawyers for Steven Avery, the man who is the focus of the advocacy documentary that has dominated the water cooler circuit since the Making of a Murderer was released on Netflex in mid-December.
If you haven’t seen it, you should.
If you have, you are probably have a lot of thoughts about Wisconsin’s judicial system and Manitowoc County’s law enforcement community.
You may have even signed one of several petitions circulating calling for a retrial or release of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey. Is there anyone out there, who after watching any of that taped confession of then 16-year-old Dassey, who doesn’t think the confession was coerced?
I’ve been around the courtroom long enough to know that justice is not color-blind. Nor is it immune to the influences of money and power. A wealthy person is far less likely to be arrested, and less likely to serve time in prison, because, let’s face it, they can afford the better legal representation.
When I was reporting from the field on all those wrongdoings by the Sheriff, I used to jokingly tell my husband that if I ended up murdered to move my body within the city limits, otherwise, the Sheriff would just rule it a suicide.
Now I don’t know one way or another whether Avery is guilty or not. At least as presented in the documentary, there certainly doesn’t seem to be enough evidence to support a conviction. It has since been reported that during the initial straw poll, seven of the jurors thought he was innocent. An important point because Manitowoc County had previously sent Avery to prison for 18 years for a rape that DNA later proved he did not commit.
Local police railroaded that conviction, in much the same way that the Corvallis Police Department mishandled the investigation of child abuse in the months leading up to the death of Karly Sheehan. As Avery’s attorneys note, the police believe that the person they are railroading is guilty, so they feel justified in their actions, no matter how wrong they may be.
In Avery’s first case, they were so, so wrong.
I don’t know what I would do if one of my kids got locked up for 18 years for a crime they didn’t commit. I would likely lose my ever-loving mind.
I don’t know when we will ever realize that certitude and self-righteousness rarely serves us well.
Never should that be more obvious than in the case of Ken Kratz. Kratz is the much-celebrated attorney who prosecuted Avery and Dassey. Kratz embodies the spirit of smugness. He wears it like a cloak for the dastardly.
Shortly after Dassey and Avery were arrested, Kratz called a press conference and gave a blow-by-blow fantastical tale of how the young teen, Dassey, heard screams coming from his uncle’s trailer. Dassey was then allegedly invited by his uncle to rape the missing woman handcuffed to the bed. Then the two of them sliced her open and cut her throat, all without leaving one drop of blood or semen or even a pubic hair behind as evidence. This in a trailer that otherwise looked like it was caught up in the Wizard of Oz storm. To say Avery isn’t a housekeeper is to undermine his upbringing in an auto salvage yard. Cleaning up after themselves isn’t something Avery and his kin do as a practice. To suggest that he and a 16-year-old boy could shed a violent crime scene of all that evidence and yet leave behind a clean mattress is, well, simply unimaginable.
What is imaginable, however, is that sex-and-violence scenario was created by a District Attorney who later lost his job, albeit not his overblown sense of importance, because of a “sex addiction” and addiction to prescription drugs.
Avery and Dassey remain behind bars while Kratz, who solicited sexual favors from domestic violence victims whose cases he was prosecuting, is threatening to sue the filmmakers for including that bit of information in the documentary.
Seems Mama had it right all along.
Sometimes it’s not clear which side of the bars the bad guys are on.
Karen Spears Zacharias is researching her next true crime book. Meanwhile, you can find the story of Karly Sheehan on Amazon.