In Netflix’s documentary series Making a Murderer, filmmakers bring attention to Steven Avery’s trial for the murder of Teresa Halbach. The series opens by explaining that Steven Avery was suing Manitowoc County, where he lived and where the murder took place, for $36 million in response to being falsely imprisoned for 18 years.
In 1985, Avery was prosecuted by Denis Vogel on behalf of Manitowoc County for the assault and rape of Penny Beerntsen. After 18 years, he was exonerated, and went on to commit the murder of Teresa Halbach. Making a Murderer doesn’t focus much on the first trial, instead bringing attention to the one for which Avery is currently sentenced.
However there are a lot of interesting elements to the 1985 case, including Denis Vogel. Vogel was the district attorney at the time, and was the prosecutor who convinced a jury of Avery’s guilt. After Avery’s exoneration, information came out that made it clear Vogel may have been hiding information which would have given reasonable doubt to Avery’s guilt, or even exonerated him earlier into his false imprisonment.
After Avery’s exoneration, Vogel was one of the men against whom Avery brought a civil suit. While it’s unclear what Vogel’s financial responsibility would have been, if found responsible he would have almost certainly lost his license to practice law. However, that case was settled after charges were brought against Avery for murdering Halbach.
Denis Vogel Prosecutes Steven Avery
In 1940, U.S. Attorney General, speaking to an assembly of federal prosecutors, said, “The prosecutor has more control over life, liberty, and reputation than any other person in America.”
Denis Vogel proves this true with Steven Avery. Even after Avery is officially exonerated, Denis Vogel’s prosecution haunts him. Assuming Avery did murder Teresa Halbach, statements from Judge Willis during sentencing allude to Willis being influenced by Vogel’s overturned prosecution.
“Given the trend of your crimes, society has a legitimate right to be concerned that there is a serious risk you would reoffend,” Willis said, though Avery’s only convicted crime at that point had been the 1985 rape he was exonerated from. So how is it that Vogel was able to so thoroughly prove Avery’s guilt, that it stuck with him even after officially being renounced?
On July 29, 1985, Penny Beerntsen was raped. That has never been questioned, the only question is of who did it. When Manitowoc Sheriff’s deputy Judy Dvorak initially listened to Beerntsen’s description of her attacker, the deputy immediately thought of Steven Avery. Avery was known to the police department due to some troubling issues from his past. For example he’d poured motor oil on a cat and threw it into a fire, he’d rammed a woman off the road and pointed a shotgun in her face, only stopping after he saw she had a child in the backseat, and lastly he’d been accused of domestic violence against his fiancee.
Avery only roughly matched the physical description – he wasn’t tall enough, and his eyes weren’t the right color. But when shown an array of photographs, each a possible suspect, Beerntsen identified Avery. Based on this Steven Avery was then arrested and subsequently charged with attempted murder and 1st degree sexual assault.
Denis Vogel, in his role as Manitowoc County D.A., filed a petition to have Avery “preventively detained.” While the crimes Avery were accused of were not enough to meet the statutory standard for such measures, Vogel and the intake judge agreed it was a necessary measure, and Avery was kept in jail until his trial, which began on December 9, 1985.
Vogel’s prosecution relied almost entirely on Beerntsen’s identification of Avery as the guilty party. Avery’s defense brought up questions as to the legitimacy of this identification, but their main defense was their 16 alibi witnesses.
16 people confirmed that Steven Avery could not have been the assailant, because they were with him in too close a timeframe to allow the crime. But Vogel kept emphasizing the bloody nature of the attack; that Penny Beerntsen needed justice. In many ways, his prosecution was not against Avery, but against the crime, with Avery being the unwilling example.
Going into deliberations, Jim Bolgert, Steven Avery’s defense attorney, was fairly confident in his client’s innocence. After all, the alibi was incredibly strong, and Beerntsen’s identification of Avery was not entirely solid.
On December 14, 1985, Steven Avery was found guilty of false imprisonment, first-degree sexual assault, and attempted murder in the first degree. It would be 18 years before this conviction would be overturned.
Appeals Reveal New Evidence
During the 2003 appeals process which exonerated Steven Avery, several facts about his 1985 trial were brought to light, beyond the DNA evidence which exonerated him. These, combined, pointed to the possible knowledge that Denis Vogel and others may have known that Avery was not the assailant.
Gregory Allen, the man inculpated by the DNA evidence, had attacked another woman on that same beach two years earlier. What is most interesting is that the criminal complaint charging Gregory Allen was found in Vogel’s case file for Steven Avery. This makes it clear Vogel at least knew of Gregory Allen’s earlier crime, and from there it seems improbable he would not have made any connection.
Denis Vogel Update – What He’s Doing Now in 2018
In 2004, Steven Avery filed a civil suit for his wrongful imprisonment. The suit was filed against Manitowoc County, and additionally the Sheriff and District Attorney at the time of his exonerated conviction – Tom Kocourek and Denis Vogel. Both had left their offices by 2004. In fact, Vogel resigned as D.A. shortly after Avery’s 1985 conviction.
This trial was settled abruptly when Avery was arrested for Teresa Halbach’s murder. Tom Kocourek was actually scheduled to be deposed the day after Avery’s arrest. Because of the settlement, further investigation into any possible malfeasance during the investigation into Beerntsen’s rape is impossible.
Denis Vogel continues to practice law in the state of Wisconsin, currently focused on land use and other property law.