Editor’s Note: In January, American Military University forensic science faculty member Jennifer Bucholtz wrote an article about the forensic evidence presented in Steven Avery’s trial. Her article sparked interest from many people including a group of high school students enrolled in a forensic science class at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology in Charlotte, North Carolina. The teacher asked if students could send Professor Bucholtz questions related to the forensic evidence of the case. Since many people interested in the Avery case may have similar questions, we decided to post their questions and her answers. Please feel free to comment below. If commenting on a specific question, please cite the question number in your comment.
Q1: What made you get into forensics?
A: I have always had an interest in the criminal justice system, mysteries of a criminal nature, and what motivates human beings to commit crimes. While attending graduate school in New York City in 1999, I worked as an intern with the death investigators at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. [Read more about Jennifer’s work as a medico-legal death investigator.] There, I learned how fascinating the human body is and how important physical forensic evidence can be in a criminal case. As the field of forensics continued to grow in the last couple of decades, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in Forensic Sciences to expand my knowledge and expertise.
Q2: Why were you interested in writing about this case?
A: The Netflix documentary about the case initially piqued my interest. I suspected the documentary did not tell the whole story and that it was slanted toward Avery’s side. I wanted to investigate the case further and find out more facts about the forensic evidence.
Q3: Have you made any contact with Steven Avery?
A: I have not made contact with Steven Avery. I am interested in hearing his side of the story, however, I suspect he has been overwhelmed with mail due to the increased media coverage of his case. Also, because he has granted very few interviews with the media and has never publicly told his side of the story, I expect he would not be willing to answer my questions. However, I am drafting a letter to him which I intend to mail some time in the future.
Q4: What do you think Steven’s motive would be for killing Teresa Halbach?
A: There are a few potential motives in this case, though I cannot pick any one that I believe is more likely than the others. Avery may have been romantically interested in Halbach. He may have asked her out and she turned him down. It is impossible to know, without Avery confessing, what may have motivated him to kill her.
A final, and more complicated motive, may have been fueled by Avery’s anger toward the Manitowac County Sheriff’s Department. Initially, Avery was only awarded $25,000 for the 18 years he wrongly spent in prison. (Later, after an appeal, he was awarded $400,000, but that occurred after Halbach’s death). It is known that Avery was very upset about this minimal amount of compensation. It is unlikely, but possible, that Avery set out to give the sheriff’s department a taste of their own medicine, so to speak. By murdering Halbach and placing the various pieces of forensic evidence around his property, he may have been on a mission to try and get sheriff’s department personnel falsely convicted (as he had been in 1985) of a murder and planting evidence against him.
Q5: How exactly can you prove that Steven Avery’s blood wasn’t planted in the car by the actual killer?
A: I cannot prove this though I believe it is unlikely. According to experts at the FBI, the blood in Halbach’s vehicle did not contain EDTA, indicating that Avery’s blood from a prior blood sample, which was preserved in a test tube, was not the source of the blood in the car. Avery’s blood was found in his own garage. There is a possibility, if Avery was not the murderer, that the actual killer used the blood from the garage to plant in Halbach’s vehicle. At this point, there is no way to prove whether this happened or not.
Q6: How did women from the search party find the car in less than an hour but the detectives never saw it?
A: The women (Pamela Sturm and her daughter, Nicole) were part of the very first search party that searched the Avery property. They searched the property before any detectives or law enforcement personnel did. This is why they were the ones who found the vehicle. Until the day Halbach’s vehicle was found, Avery was not yet a suspect in the murder. Up to that point, detectives had only conducted a rudimentary search of Avery’s house (where they found no obvious incriminating evidence).
Q7: Why was the search party even allowed on the property?
A: It is not unusual for civilian search parties to be let onto personal properties when searching for a missing person. Permission was given by the Avery family to search their salvage yard the day Halbach’s vehicle was discovered.
Q8: If Steven Avery wore gloves how would his blood be in the vehicle?
A: In my article, I suggested that he may have cut himself through his glove without realizing it. If this were the case, his blood could have seeped through the cut in the glove.
Q9: Why would he unhook the vehicle if he planned to move it?
A: The prosecution suggested Avery disconnected the battery of the vehicle so that, if a family member or friend had the remote key fob for the vehicle, they would not be able to locate it by flashing the lights or honking the horn with the remote.
Q10: Why would he keep the key in his bedroom if he did kill her?
A: Avery may have kept the key with intentions to move Halbach’s car or crush it at a later time or date.
Q11: Why would he put her in the truck to burn her in the backyard?
A: As stated in my article, Avery may have placed Halbach’s body into the back of her own vehicle in order to keep her concealed until after sunset and to prevent her blood from getting on anything in his house.
Q12: Is there a way to really know what happened that day?
A: We will probably never know what really happened that day to Teresa. Unless someone comes forward with additional forensic evidence or a confession (with proof), the case will likely remain a mystery.
Q13: If you had a chance to retry Steven Avery, how would you go about proving him not guilty?
A: At this point I have no evidence to suggest he is not guilty, although in our justice system, this is not a requirement. Every person arrested is considered innocent until proven guilty. The defense does not need to prove someone not guilty. If someone came forward and confessed, provided an alibi for Avery, and/or new evidence was found that pointed to a different killer, the case could possibly be re-tried. At this point the forensic evidence only points to one person and that is Steven Avery.
Q14: Do you believe that Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are innocent?
A: I believe Brendan Dassey is innocent of any wrongdoing. I feel the only involvement he may have had was (1) unwittingly helping Avery clean up blood in his garage (meaning Brendan did not know it was blood he was cleaning up) and (2) attending a bonfire at Avery’s house on the night in question. I do not believe Brendan had any role in killing Teresa or disposing of her body.
I would like to believe Avery is innocent. It is hard to conceive of a man who spent 18 years in prison on a false conviction committing a crime that would send him back to prison. But, human behavior can be strange and impossible to understand sometimes. Unless additional evidence is found that points to a different killer, I am forced to believe Avery is responsible for Halbach’s death.
Q15: If you were part of the jury, based on all the evidence provided and all the suspicious activity, inconclusive tests, and contradicting testimonies, would you vote innocent or guilty? Why?
A: Based on the forensic evidence provided, I would have voted Avery guilty. The defense provided minimal evidence to contradict the prosecution’s claims during the trial and did not provide proof that someone else killed Halbach. An interesting tidbit is that the prosecution’s case lasted for 18 days while the defense’s case was only two-and-a-half days. However, this is not unusual in criminal trials. The prosecution bears the burden of proving a defendant guilty, so it follows that their case will often be longer than the defense’s case. Additionally, this is not a fact that can be used by the jury in determining guilty of innocence.
Final Thoughts on the Forensic Evidence
Many students who contacted me were suspicious of the Manitowac Sheriff’s Department and their motives during the investigation. Most also believe Avery is innocent. As stated above, we will likely never know the true circumstances of what happened to Teresa Halbach on October 31, 2005. But, forensic evidence is quite reliable and, though circumstantial in this case, it only points to one perpetrator: Steven Avery.
In addition to the students from Phillip O. Berry Academy, I have received numerous emails and comments from other Netflix viewers and readers of my original article on the Avery case. I have noticed most people who have watched only the documentary and have not conducted any other research tend to believe Avery is not guilty. I do believe the Netflix series was quite slanted in Avery’s favor. After reviewing court transcripts and other documents related to this case I would encourage people to consider the bias of the documentary and know it excluded significant information related to this case.
About the Author: Jennifer Bucholtz is a former U.S. Army Counterintelligence Agent and a decorated veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. She holds a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice, Master of Arts in Criminal Justice and Master of Science in Forensic Sciences. Jennifer has an extensive background in U.S. military and Department of Defense counterintelligence operations. While on active duty, she served as the Special Agent in Charge for her unit in South Korea and Assistant Special Agent in Charge at stateside duty stations. Jennifer has also worked for the Arizona Department of Corrections and Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City. Jennifer is currently an adjunct faculty member at American Military University and teaches courses in criminal justice and forensic sciences. You can contact her at Jennifer.Bucholtz@mycampus.apus.edu.