Colder weather has not been the only thing gripping the country these past few days. A Netflix original documentary series, Making a Murderer, has sent shockwaves through the country, leading to thousands of petitioners requesting the pardon of Wisconsin inmates Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, sentenced to life without parole for the murder of an Auto Trader photographer in 2005.
What has made this case so intriguing is the Wisconsin law enforcement system’s handling of the investigation and trial. I won’t spoil the entire series, but questions arose when Avery, who was wrongfully convicted of a sexual assault by this same county prosecutor’s office in 1985 and spent 18 years in jail, was in the midst of a $36 million wrongful conviction suit against the county sheriff’s department when he and his teenage nephew Dassey were arrested for murder. What followed was at its worst, a story of corruption and revenge, or, at its best, complete and reckless ineptitude on the part of the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department. Opinions vary.
In this country, the first case of wrongful conviction in a murder trial (that was proven in a court system) began in 1812.
That was the year Russell Colvin, a resident of Machester, Vt., went missing. Scrutiny was immediately focused on his two brothers-in-law, Jesse and Stephen Boorn, as they had made no secret of their disdain for him. Colvin had married their sister and worked with them on the family farm, and the Boorn brothers felt that he was a lazy, no-good leech.
With no evidence even suggesting that Colvin was dead, the brothers were free for seven years when the supernatural intervened. Amos Boorn, Jesse and Stephen’s uncle, went public with the claim that Colvin’s ghost had visited him in a dream. He told Boorn that he had been killed, but never told him who the killers were. He did, however, tell him that his remains were located in a cellar hole located in a potato field on the family farm. Suddenly the stone cold case went blazing hot.
Investigators looked through the cellar and found broken shards of pots and other items. Sally Boorn Colvin, widow to Russell and sister to Jesse and Stephen, identified the items as belong to her late husband. There was a motive behind her response—she had a child out of wedlock more than nine months after her husband’s disappearance. Under the law at the time, any child born to a married woman was assumed to belong to her husband. But if her husband was dead, she could collect financial support from the real father. Her husband being declared dead was good for Mrs. Colvin.
It was terrible, however, for her two brothers. Shortly after the investigation of the cellar, a barn burned on the property. And a few days after that, a dog uncovered bone fragments nearby. Local physicians verified that they were human remains. Conspiracy theorists went wild with speculation that Jesse and Stephen had been moving the body around the farm and burned the barn to destroy evidence. Arrest warrants were issued for the two men. Jesse, who was living in the area, was apprehended quickly and thrown in jail, while Stephen was living in New York.
Jesse’s cellmate took the opportunity to better his own circumstances by telling authorities that Jesse had confessed to him. Shortly after a visit from Barney Boorn, Jesse and Stephen’s father, the cellmate stated that Jesse told him that it was Stephen who clubbed Colvin while in the heat of an argument, when the elder Boorn walked by. Barney then finished the job by slitting Colvin’s throat with a pen knife before all three buried the body in the cellar. A few years later, they moved the remains to the barn. After that burned, they dug up the bones, and moved them to the site where the dog found them a few days later. The cellmate offered his cooperation in exchange for his immediate release, which was granted.
Jesse’s legal situation was looking perilous. So, in a calculated effort to minimize his sentence and shield his father from prosecution, Jesse confessed to the crime, but didn’t take full responsibility. He informed authorities that it was Stephen who spearheaded the slaying.
But that tale did not jive with the story Stephen would soon tell. Located in New York, Stephen travelled voluntarily to his home state of Vermont to clear his name. Jesse recanted, but the backtrack was disregarded.
Soon faced with mounting witnesses declaring that the men had acted in manners that suggested they knew Colvin was dead and had been fighting with him on the day he disappeared, Stephen also confessed to the killing, but stated that it was in self-defense.
Stephen and Jesse were not aided by their defense attorneys, who, along with everyone else, assumed their guilt. There is speculation that Stephen, a man of low intelligence, could not have written the confession that damned him.
Despite the fact that the physicians that declared the bones to be human changed their minds when presented with a real human leg bone, the Boorns were convicted of Colvin’s murder. Stephen was ultimately sentenced to death, while Jesse received life in prison.
But the Boorn brothers’ fate would change.
In November 1819, Tabor Chadwick, a traveler from New Jersey, heard a New York Post article, which focused on the role of the divine intercessor in the Boorn case, being read aloud in the lobby of his hotel. The article referred to Russell Colvin, which rang a bell for Chadwick. He knew a Russell Colvin who lived in New Jersey and often spoke of Vermont.
Chadwick wrote letters to the postmaster of Manchester, Vt., and the Post. The postmaster of Manchester happened to be one of the Boorn brothers’ attorneys, but was discarded. The Post published the letter in December. Stephen was scheduled to hang in January of the next year.
A reader, a man by the name of James Whelpley, was from Manchester but living in New York. He travelled to the town in which Colvin was then living and, with a young woman was bait, tricked and manipulated Colvin into returning to Vermont, which he did not want to do.
Upon the arrival and verification of Colvin, authorities had no choice but to release Stephen and Jesse Boorn. The murdered lived and the jailed freed.
This case, as well as the Making a Murderer case, represents how difficult it can be to ensure a fair trial when one side is hell-bent on a particular outcome and the other side lies down (though the Avery case could be more heinous than that). Combine that with a raging public that is often willing to be led to their own conclusions, and you have a recipe for injustice.
While much discussion was focused on the role the divine ghost played in leading the Boorns to conviction, it appears the real angels eventually succeeded in their defense.
- First Wrongful Conviction (Center on Wrongful Convictions: Bluhm Legal Clinic, Northwestern University School of Law) http://www.law.northwestern.edu/legalclinic/wrongfulconvictions/exonerations/vt/boorn-brothers.html
- Jesse Boorn and Stephen Boorn (Vermont History Myths Legends and Resource Guide)