In looking at suspicious elements of Steven Avery’s trial, Netflix’s Making a Murderer focuses a lot on the behavior of the prosecution and its witnesses. One overlooked person is the presiding Judge, Patrick Willis. With his preliminary hearing rulings, he set the tone for the entire trial, and may have helped prevent the defense from presenting a cohesive rhetoric.
When Teresa Halbach disappeared in rural Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, police immediately suspected Steven Avery, whose family owned a salvage yard in the northern part of the county. Recently having filed suit against the county for his previous false imprisonment, Avery was questioned by police the same day she was reported missing.
After physical evidence was found in Avery’s trailer, he was arrested. The charges were brought against him by Calumet County, who had taken over the investigation to avoid potential issues due to the ongoing civil suit against Manitowoc County.
While Manitowoc County was supposed to have minimal involvement in the case, several deputies, including Andrew Colborn and James Lenk, helped find crucial evidence. The whole trial, despite being held in Calumet County, was presided over by Judge Patrick Willis.
Before going further into Patrick Willis’ questionable actions during Avery’s trial, it might be good to draw attention to his life outside that case. Born in Manitowoc in 1950, Willis attended the law school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Admitted to the state bar in 1975, he became the City Attorney for Manitowoc, the seat of Manitowoc County in 1977. During his tenure, he did a lot of things which people still think of positively. He helped revive a boat-building industry, and conducted mock trials to help area children learn about the justice system. He also helped bring a car ferry back to Manitowoc, connecting the town with Ludington, Michigan. Appointed by the governor to an interim term in 1997, Patrick Willis was elected by a large margin the following year. To show appreciation for his service as City Attorney, Judge Willis was given a key to the city. Try to remember these honors while his conduct during Avery’s trial is covered.
For every trial in which the defendant pleads not guilty, the court has a preliminary hearing. This hearing is to establish concrete details about the case, some context, and to handle any possible settlement. Because of this, the preliminary hearing has a large effect on the rest of the proceedings. In Avery’s preliminary hearing, a lot of important things were established. One of the first rulings was to dismiss two of the charges against Avery, first-degree sexual assault and kidnapping.
Making a Murderer brings a lot of attention to a vial of blood found by Avery’s defense team. Found in an unsealed container, the vial of blood may have been tampered with, and lends a lot of credence to the defense that Steven Avery was being framed. However, Judge Willis does not allow the blood to be tested to see if it had been tampered with, because it would delay the trial.
Also done in the interest of a quick trial, Judge Willis makes perhaps his most contentious preliminary statement.
While the defense is permitted to argue that Steven Avery was framed, they are not permitted to introduce third party liability. What this means is that while his defense could claim Steven was set-up, they couldn’t say anything about who they thought might have done it. They couldn’t introduce evidence, call witnesses, or ask questions that would be seen as implicating any third party in Halbach’s murder, they could only argue that someone was a third party.
This meant that all through the trial, the defense had to stop short of actually saying, “We think James Lenk planted this evidence,” they could only go as far as to say, “This evidence only showed up in the room after James Lenk was left alone unsupervised in an area which had been previously searched eight times.”
A lot of people are asking why or even how Judge Willis would be allowed to limit the defense in such a clearly important way. In the preliminary ruling, Willis stated:
“Avery offered no physical or other evidence connecting any of the individuals to the crime, other than their presence in the general vicinity. One can only imagine how much longer this six-week trial would have lasted had the court granted [Avery’s] request to introduce third-party liability evidence implicating the ten individuals named in [Avery’s] Statement on Third Party Responsibility.”
In essence, this is saying that if Avery were allowed to test and implicate each of the ten possible suspects his defense found, the trial would take too long. Decisions along this line had been precedented in Wisconsin by The State v Denny, answering how Judge Willis was able to use that reasoning.
This would be brought into question during the first of Avery’s appeals post-conviction, but for the trial, the ruling stood, and can be seen repeatedly to have limited the defense’s ability to provide a cohesive argument.
Sentencing & Appeals
During the trial, Judge Willis presided without much incident. While there may be some interest in his seemingly arbitrary support of objections, what has drawn the most focus are the statements he made during his sentencing.
“One of the things that strikes me the most is that as you’ve grown older, your crimes have increased in severity,” Willis said to Steven Avery, continuing, “Given the trend of your crimes, society has a legitimate right to be concerned that there is a serious risk you would re-offend and commit serious offenses if you’re ever permitted to be released from prison.”
What makes this comment so interesting is that prior to the murder he had been found guilty of, Avery had not been known to have committed any crime since well before he was accused of assault in 1985. The last known crime, prior to Halbach’s murder, that Avery had been known to commit, was in 1982, more than 20 years prior to this murder.
What about that timeline made Judge Willis perceive an escalation of crimes? Running someone off the road twenty years ago hardly suggests a clear path to brutally raping and murdering a woman twenty years later. These statements have largely been inferred to demonstrate that Judge Willis, in an abandonment of his judicial duty, neglected to disregard the tinge cast on Avery by his false conviction. If that’s the case, maybe Avery would have seen a lighter sentence, a sentence not influenced in ways it shouldn’t have been, had Judge Willis been able to truly disregard his knowledge of that case beyond its effect on Avery.
When Avery appealed his sentence, it was Judge Willis who heard the appeal. Many online are questioning this, but it representative of normal judicial process, and the confusion comes from coverage not being clear on its legalese.
While a judge hears the post-trial post-conviction appellate motion, if approved the appeal itself would be heard in the relevant appellate court. Because Judge Willis is most familiar with the case, it would make sense to let him hear the arguments and decide if they are reasonable or not. However, if there is corruption or malice on the part of the judicial, this self-regulation could fail, and may be the reason why Steven Avery was not given an appeal.
Patrick Willis Now in 2017
In 2012, Judge Willis retired, at the age of 62. While he will likely be most known for presiding over the largest homicide trial to occur in Wisconsin to date, he did have a career beyond that, one which from every appearance was beneficial to the population of Manitowoc County at large. This is brought up not to excuse any possible malfeasance, but to explain his possible motivation for acting so definitively against a perceived threat to his community.