‘A key would not be missed’ - a British detective answers Making a Murderer questions
Published 18/01/2016 | 12:54
Could Steven Avery really have cleaned all the blood from the garage? How easy is it to plant evidence? British detective RC Bridgestock answers these questions and more...
Netflix documentary Making a Murderer has kept viewers gripped with an unfurling tale of murder and the actions of American law enforcement.
But then more information came out: creators Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos hadn’t included more incriminating evidence about Avery. There were attempts for appeals, the White House was lobbied for support, and Avery’s friends, families and ex-fiancees came out with new statements.
During it all, we had questions. Just how easy is it to transfer somebody’s touch DNA? Are the police really that corrupt?
We spoke to Bob Bridgestock, half of bestselling husband-and-wife crime-writing team RC Bridgestock and a career detective of 30 years with the West Yorkshire Police. The former Detective Superintendent dealt with dozens of murders and suspicious deaths - and one of his few unsolved cases involves a victim who was shot in a garage. Here’s what he had to say - it’s worth noting that he hasn’t seen the series:
Some viewers thought Brendan Dassey was more innocent than he suggested after police interrogation. Do innocent people confess?
Sadly they do, or should I say they used to [in the UK], prior to the introduction of the Police & Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which brought in the required recording of interviews and the need for a suspect to have legal representation.
There was a similar case in West Yorkshire in 1975. Stefan Kisko was arrested and convicted for the abduction and murder of an 11-year-old girl, Lesley Molseed. He confessed and served 16 years in prison, until developments in forensic science showed that it couldn’t possibly be him.
In 1992, when he was 40, he was freed on appeal and died a year later of a heart attack. There had been a long campaign by family suggesting he was innocent.
The three senior officers and a forensic man were charged with suppressing evidence but this was never pursued because the lead detective died. The suggestion was that the detectives had bullied a confession out of him.
Even when Kisko was released the detectives insisted he must have been there, and he must have had an accomplice.
These days admissions alone would not be sufficient to convict anyone of a crime. There is a need for other irrefutable evidence, such as DNA or fingerprints.
Both Brendan and Steven have very low IQs. How is a suspect’s IQ considered in questioning?
If there is any suggestion that a suspect has learning difficulties they would be questioned by a doctor who has mental health training to establish if the individual understands what is happening and is capable of being subjected to an interview. A responsible adult would be used to assist a child, or a solicitor for an adult and on occasions there would be someone there with experience of people with learning difficulties.
An interview confession with no other corroboration is highly insufficient to charge someone, from just what they tell you. You as the investigator would seek corroboration.
What about Steven’s history of animal abuse? The cat incident from his past is being lent on quite heavily by the prosecution:
There is some belief that murderers abuse or kill animals as they are growing up. I have dealt with quite a number of murderers and I haven’t had any admissions of this. So I would not put any reliance on the fact that murderers abuse animals in childhood. It certainly wouldn’t be evidence.
The defence’s case lies heavily on the late discovery of a key that they argue was planted by the police. How likely is it that a piece of evidence could be missed for days after repeated extensive searches of a property?
If we are talking modern searching? Highly unlikely. Before searching such a crime scene, 360-degree filming of the scene takes place, and photographs are taken of everything in situ before anything is touched. If it was an area where a rape was thought to have taken place, the carpet would be swabbed for seepage stains, blood, semen, pubic hair, and samples of the carpet would be taken.
As a senior investigating officer I would expect them to find items smaller than car keys, such as broken buttons and earring studs. The reality is that a key would not be missed, and it would appear in the initial photographs. If not the search teams along with CSI haven’t done their job properly.
But the prosecution argue that it would be impossible to plant such a key, especially with evidence of Steven Avery’s sweat on.
There would have to be an agreed course of action (or conspiracy) by all those first on the crime scene. Then, to transfer DNA, you would need the alleged offender’s bodily fluid (blood, urine, saliva, semen etc).
Transferring sweat would be difficult. I’m not sure it could be done convincingly, even if you rubbed the key on the victim’s T-shirt, for instance. As the investigator, if we had sweat on a key, I would expect a lot more forensic evidence, such as fibres, to corroborate how it may have got there.
There are a lot of questions surrounding where Teresa Halbach’s body was burned, and the size of that fire. Would it be possible to reduce a human body to bones in an open domestic bonfire?
In order to cremate a human body you’d need very high temperatures, somewhere between 1600-1800 degrees centigrade, for 90 minutes. Even then you would find small fragments of bone among the ashes.
Bonfires burn at a lower temperature: below 1200 degrees. If a body is found in the remains of a bonfire then among the skeleton, there will likely be small fragments of flesh or clothing, too.
I’d be disappointed as an investigator if all that was found was a skeleton, but it's not impossible.
Is it possible to DNA test bones that have been so charred?
Bones are one of the best sources for DNA. To extract DNA from bones that have soaked in water, burned or buried for a long time scientists use a chemical process. This has been successfully used to identify victims of explosions and plane crashes.
The prosecution claim that Brendan and Steven bleached the garage after murdering Teresa. Would a non-professional be capable of cleaning all traces of blood spatter from a garage full of equipment if someone had been shot in the head?
It would depend on the weapon used and whereabouts in the head they were shot. If it was for example a shotgun under the chin, which I have dealt with more than once, it is likely everything above the mouth would be missing and splattered everywhere, usually on the ceiling.
However, I dealt with a murder where the deceased was shot in the head at close range and then shot in the mouth whilst he laid on the floor, and because of this there was little distribution of blood except in the immediate area.
If the head injury was severe and blood had been everywhere, the offender would struggle to remove all traces and there would be evidence of cleaning. Sometimes you can wash stains into materials as opposed to removing them. I would be confident that the CSI would find something.
But if they had successfully cleaned the garage, is it likely they would leave such obvious blood stains in the victim’s car, and a key at the scene of the crime?
If someone is being so meticulous in cleaning the scene of a crime in an attempt to remove any evidence to connect them, it would be unlikely that they would then overlook obvious visual evidence such as fingerprints and the car keys.
The golden rule for any investigator is that you never assume anything and you let the evidence tell you what happened. It is only evidence that will convict a person.
Avery’s lawyers suggest that not only local law enforcement, but even the FBI, suffer from corruption. How often would a lawyer going into a case question the integrity of the police involved?
It would be naive to think that police corruption doesn’t exist, and there are several examples over the years. So being realistic corruption does, and can, occur, whether for financial gain or cover-ups. Fortunately, it is very rare. But it can, and does reach the higher ranks and cross units.
The integrity of a police officer or public officials is questioned whenever there is a suggestion of improper behaviour. If they have evidence, and can discredit the account of an officer, then defence lawyers will question it, especially if the officer has already been proved to have been dishonest.
Has anyone, that you know of, ever won a case against a murder charge on a framing defence against the police?
I’m not aware of any.
When is it the right decision for an innocent man accused of a crime not to take the stand?
There is no right answer to this. However it is for the prosecution to prove a person's guilt beyond doubt. The defendant has no obligation to prove their innocence. People will or may draw inferences from a person's reluctance to take the stand and protest their innocence.
For someone of a somewhat odd appearance, with a low IQ, to take the stand and become lost in cross examination may not help them prove their innocence.