Wisconsin State Journal

Zimmerman Case Could Be Wake-up Call On Evidence

His Lawyers Hope It Leads To Requiring Taped Interrogations And Will Prevent Zeroing In On One Suspect Too Soon.

Sunday, May 1, 2005
Dee J. Hall Wisconsin State Journal

La Crosse attorney Keith Belzer hopes Evan Zimmerman's wrongful imprisonment for murder prompts changes in the way Wisconsin police investigate crimes.

Zimmerman left the Dodge County Courthouse Friday a free man when a second murder trial against him was thrown out mid-trial after a prosecutor said he lacked the evidence to prove Monona native Zimmerman killed his former girlfriend. Zimmerman had spent 3 1/2 years in prison.

Belzer and his co-counsel, Keith Findley, hope the case will prompt changes, such as requiring tape-recorded interrogations and avoiding a natural tendency to zero in on a suspect too soon.

Belzer believes that if Eau Claire police had taped their interviews with Zimmerman, he never would have been convicted in the first place. Much of the case against the Monona native was based on what police believed were inconsistent and evasive statements Zimmerman made about where he was on Feb. 26, 2000 when his former girlfriend, Kathleen Thompson, was murdered.

During the four days of testimony in Zimmerman's second trial, Belzer said he "noticed time and again how two officers, doing the same interview of Evan, would write reports with important differences."

"That's why there must be mandatory recording of interrogations in this state," he said. "Without a videotape, we have to rely on somebody who, by definition, cannot be an impartial observer to tell the jury what they think happened, what they think was said."

By recording suspects' statements, Findley said, "We have the ability to develop so much better evidence than that - then we don't have to rely on somebody's interpretation. We can let the jury see it and decide."

At least four states, including Illinois, and the District of Columbia require electronic recording of suspect interrogations under specified circumstances, according to a report prepared for the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions. Author Thomas P. Sullivan surveyed more than 200 police departments and found that recording interrogations leads to fewer challenges in court.

"If the officers conduct themselves properly during questioning...officers are spared from defending themselves against allegations of coercion, trickery and perjury..." said Sullivan, former U.S. attorney for the northern district of Illinois.

The Wisconsin Legislature's Avery Commission examined the wrongful conviction of Steven Avery, who spent 18 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit. Although some members thought taping interrogations was a good idea, others thought it would be too costly and unwieldy and could constitute an unfunded mandate from the state. Ultimately, when it made its recommendations in February, the commission failed to take a stand on the issue.

But Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard believes it's just a matter of time before the state begins requiring taped interrogations. Blanchard said it's important for judges and juries to "see and hear the nuances of defendants' statements," allowing them to see the relevance of key details.

"I think it is widely understood by police in Wisconsin that electronic recording of custodial interrogations is going to be required at some point," Blanchard said.

He said police agencies could implement their own policies to tape interrogations or the Legislature or courts could require it.

"I hope Wisconsin police agencies can secure the funding needed for training, implementation and reliable equipment just as soon as possible," Blanchard said.

Findley also believes there's another factor at work when the wrong person goes to prison, one that's not as easily solved: Human nature.

"When you look at wrongful convictions, there's a lot of specific things that you can examine that went wrong: False confessions, mistaken eyewitness identification," Findley said. "But there's sort of an overarching . . . phenomenon that attaches to all almost all of them. And that is the problem of tunnel vision."

Tunnel vision was named as a major factor in the wrongful conviction of "Ford Heights Four" - four men who spent a total of 64 years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence in 1996. A special investigator determined in 2003 that the single-minded focus by police on the four suspects in the rape and murder of a suburban Chicago couple was a major factor in their wrongful conviction.

Findley said the Zimmerman case "is a remarkable example of that." Findley's team tried to introduce evidence of a similar strangulation murder of a woman left on the street in Eau Claire County that occurred while Zimmerman was imprisoned. They also pointed out that some of her other male acquaintances had motive and opportunity to kill her. But Eau Claire Circuit Judge Benjamin Proctor blocked that evidence, and the trial ended before the defense could put on its case.

"There was no evidence against Evan Zimmerman - very, very little evidence," Findley said. "But early on, the investigation locked on him and then everything that happened after that was filtered through this lens of trying to find guilt. So everything that came in was interpreted as incriminating (and) everything that was inconsistent with that - like the complete lack of physical evidence - was disregarded as unimportant."

Eau Claire Police Chief Jerry Matysik said while no investigation is perfect, he believes his officers did the best job they could with a case that relied on circumstantial evidence. He added that the police don't believe the two strangulation murders are related.

Nevertheless, Zimmerman's son, Shannon, said the fact that police failed to aggressively pursue those leads showed their focus never strayed from his father. "Grave errors," he said. "happen because of overzealous police departments."

Zimmerman friend Karen Eckert of Balsam Lake, who stood by her friend throughout the police investigation and his two trials, agreed.

Said Eckert: "I think they just wanted somebody, and he was the one."

Contact Dee J. Hall at dhall@madison.com or 252-6132.

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