A Dark Cloud Hangs Over Manitowoc
Kathleen Zellner’s most recent tweet,
Fassbender first suggested to BD that SA improperly touched.Allows BD to justify false confession-frame & defame#Factbender
Strang: In 1985, you were requested by the then-sheriff of Manitowoc County, Tom Kocourek to arrest Mr. Avery on a charge of attempted murder.
Strang: And that involved a violent assault on a beach here in Manitowoc County?
Strang: Later, the claim that Mr. Avery had made that he was innocent of those crimes proved to be true.
Strang: I’m sorry?
Peterson: I would have doubt.
Strang: You have doubts about that?
Those doubts undoubtedly remain to this day given the remarks Mr. Petersen made more recently to an audience of millions on the popular Dr. Phil Show when asked by Dr. Phil whether he has any guilt for arresting an innocent man. Without a moments hesitation he replies, “No, none whatsoever”.
You’d have to be a pretty rotten bastard to not feel bad about that, even if you were just following orders, UNLESS you inwardly felt all along that the man you arrested so long ago was, in fact, guilty.
No so long ago, a reader recommended a piece by Lorrie Moore which ran in the February 25the edition of The New York Review of Books which very efficiently encapsulates my own impressions of the things I heard and the things I witnessed in Manitowoc:
A long-form documentary in ten parts, aired on Netflix, the ambitious series looks at social class, community consensus and conformity, the limits of trials by jury, and the agonizing stupidities of a legal system descending on more or less undefended individuals (the poor)…
The story one does see clearly here is really a story of small-town malice. The label “white trash,” not only dehumanizing but classist and racist—the term presumes trash is not ordinarily white—is never heard in this documentary. Perhaps the phrase is too southern in its origins. But it is everywhere implied. The Averys are referred to repeatedly by others in their community as “those people” and those “kind of people.” “You did not choose your parents,” says an interrogator, trying to ply answers out of sixteen-year-old Brendan, though his parents are irrelevant to the examination and are not being criminally accused of anything.
Yet the entire family is socially accused: outsiders, troublemakers, feisty, and a little dim. What one hears amid the chorus of accusers is the malice of the village. Village malice toward its own fringes has been dramatized powerfully in literary and film narrative—from Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible to the Michael Haneke film The White Ribbon to Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. Trimming the raggedy edges is how a village stays a village, how it remains itself. Contemporary shunning and cleansing may take new and different forms but they always retain the same heartlessness, the unacknowledged violence, the vaguely genocidal thinking. An investigator ostensibly on Brendan’s defense team speaks openly of his distaste for the Avery family tree and says, “Someone said to me we need to end the gene pool here.”
Given the insular nature of a small town, when a citizen as prominent as Ken Petersen publicly expresses under oath that he has doubts about Steven Avery’s innocence for the sexual assault of Penny Bernsteen in 1985, he is expressing the point of view of an informal consensus reached by far more people than just himself. We can infer that his view was that of the law enforcement community in Manitowoc along with, in all likelihood, the prevailing view of prominent members of that community from whom they seek votes come election time. (The sheriff is an elected official in Manitowoc, just like in most places in the United States.)
This brings me back to the encounter at Starbucks, only part of which is shown in the video heading this article. Unlike almost everywhere else in the world, the townspeople of Manitowoc seem to overwhelmingly believe in Avery’s guilt, and their sentiments on this score are colored with what seems like malice, resentment, and denial. My experience with those in town who would speak to me (as you can see in the video) was that most preferred to let the jury’s official ruling of guilt serve as a proxy for a thoroughly reasoned opinion.
We might forgive many of the townsfolk for their stance on the matter of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey’s guilt or innocence once we fully understand how strong some of the deeper currents run beneath the placid surface of this small town. Perhaps an outsider, especially one from a larger city, cannot fully comprehend that to state a strong opinion on Steven Avery’s guilt or innocence is tantamount to abstracting the character of the town itself. A citizen is not at liberty to call in to question Steven Avery’s innocence without calling into question the nature of the town itself. To state that an outsider such as Avery is guilty is to obliquely express that you believe in the righteousness of members of your own community, and that it is largely comprised of God-fearing, honorable men and women.
The part of my encounter that wasn’t show on video was of an elderly lady, about the age the Penny Bernsteen would now be, who openly expressed that she believed Steven Avery was guilty of the sexual assault of Penny Bernsteen in 1985. She went on to further state that she knew Penny Bernsteen, and that Penny, despite her public pronouncements, secretly felt the same way.
Ironically, there was nothing about the elderly woman that gave me cause to doubt what she had said. She was well dressed and well groomed, spoke in a forthright manner, and even had an openness and kindness of expression, a grandmotherly sweetness, shall we say. What she related to me was said under the shouts of her daughter who had been stridently urging her not to speak to me, as though she might inadvertently reveal the dark face of small town prejudice. But the old lady was undaunted, and further related that the only evidence which tied Gregory Allen to the sexual assault of Penny Bernsteen was a single pubic hair combed from a beach towel. “What in the world does that signify?” she asked, and in a foreshadowing of the the nature of the evidence found in Teresa Halbach’s murder, she also stated, “that beach towel could have picked up a hair that had already been there.”
Because Penny Bernsteen has been unwavering in publicly stated that it was her mistaking Steven Avery for Gregory Allen that caused Steven Avery to be sent to prison, we are obliged to believe her. And even if she does privately express a contrary view, even this must be looked at through a certain lens given the possible consequences, even for a woman in the town as prominent as she, for dissenting from the majority.
At least I try to see it this way even though Penny Bernsteen is now on record for just about coming out and saying she believes Steven Avery is guilty of murdering Teresa Halbach, and this view apparently predated the jury’s official verdict. This is what Kathryn Schultz wrote in The New Yorker as part of a de facto review of Making A Murderer (Emily Nussbaum is the New Yorker staff writer who normally reviews television shows)
Given her history, Beerntsen does not need any convincing that a criminal prosecution can go catastrophically awry. But when Ricciardi and Demos approached her about participating in “Making a Murderer” she declined, chiefly because, while her own experience with the criminal-justice system had led her to be wary of certitude, the filmmakers struck her as having already made up their minds. “It was very clear from the outset that they believed Steve was innocent,” she told me. “I didn’t feel they were journalists seeking the truth. I felt like they had a foregone conclusion and were looking for a forum in which to express it.”
Penny seems not to comprehend the irony that she’s comes off as being as sure of the filmmaker’s motives as she did of Avery’s guilt in 1985.
And if you read an interview Penny gave to Christine Thomas of The Marshall Project on 1/05/2016, she states repeatedly how offended she was, after Avery’s conviction for the 1985 sexual assault, that he had the audacity to wage a legal battle to prove his innocence. Throughout the years of Avery’s false imprisonment, doubts would creep in, Penny said–a school teacher, for example, who lived across the street and had Steven’s twins in his class had questioned Penny’s lack of doubt after the mother of the twins had repeatedly vouched for Avery’s alibi–but Penny always found an excuse to wave them off. Without feeling a touch of arrogance, she must have told herself that people from Avery’s class, and there were many who swore they were with Avery, far away from the beach when the attack occurred, make no scruple to tell lies whenever it is convenient to do so.
I am not trying to suggest that Penny Bernsteen is in any way a bad person, at least not by the usual standards by which we gauge such things. I am suggesting that one risks a great deal in a small town by going against the common current.