Thursday, November 24, 2005

When Guilt or Innocence Hangs on a Hair

Recently I blogged on the disturbing case(s) of Steven Avery: When Chances Collide; DNA & "Exoneration"; Suggestibility & Gullibility (Nov. 12, 2005) and More about Steven Avery (Nov. 13, 2005). Steven Avery is the Wisconsin man who (i) is now charged with the murder of Teresa Halbach in 2005 (just a few weeks ago), (ii) was convicted in 1985 for the rape and attempted murder of Penny Beerntsen earlier that year, and (iii) was officially exonerated in 2003 of the rape and attempted murder of Beernsten in 1985.

The evidence against Avery for the 2005 murder of Halbach seems very strong. One question raised by the evidence of Avery's complicity in the 2005 murder is whether the exoneration of Avery for the rape and attempted murder of Beernsten was a mistake.

I cannot answer this question; I do not know the evidence in either case well enough. But it is pertinent to note that Avery's exoneration of the 1985 rape and attempted murder rested -- so newspaper accounts suggest -- on a single hair. See Michelle Kubitz, Avery One Year Later, Herald Times Reporter (September 10, 2004):

Sept. 10, 2003: State Crime Lab tests on 13 hairs recovered from the victim [Penny Beerntsen] at the crime scene indicates that one [emphasis added by P. Tillers] of them did not match Avery's. That sample of DNA matches that of Wisconsin inmate Gregory Allen, who is serving a 60-year sentence for a different sexual assault in Brown County.
Question: If Steven Avery did indeed rape and try to kill Beernsten, how did one of Gregory Allen's hairs end up on Penny Beernsten?

I surely don't know the answer. But, as I suggested in one of my earlier posts, one possibility should be investigated. Newspaper reports suggest that in 1985 Steven Avery and Gregory Allen lived in the same area or neighborhood. If that is the case, it might be useful to know (i) whether Avery and Allen knew each other in 1985; (ii) if they did, whether they spent time together in 1985 or whether they were perhaps even close chums; and (iii) if they did spend time with each other and were acquaintances in 1985, whether they engaged in activities (e.g., touch football games, other physical horseplay with each other, joint hunting trips, sitting on the same couch in Avery's house or Allen's house) that might have resulted in the transfer of one of Allen's hairs to Avery or to Avery's clothing.

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