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
La Crosse attorney Keith Belzer hopes Evan Zimmerman's
imprisonment for murder prompts changes in the way Wisconsin police
Dee J. Hall Wisconsin State Journal
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."
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
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.
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
interrogations or the Legislature or courts could require it.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Contact Dee J. Hall at email@example.com or 252-6132.