The Making A Murderer saga just got stranger.
In a letter to counsel in the case against Steven Avery, judge Angela Sutkiewicz reported receiving flowers which purportedly originated with a group of anti-Avery activists online.
The judge told the attorneys that “an individual sent a floral arrangement to the courthouse on November 29, 2017, addressed to me.” The flowers contained a card which said, “Best wishes from your admirers at SAIG (Steven Avery Is Guilty).” The judge contacted the sheriff’s department “in an abundance of caution,” she wrote, and the sheriff’s department “determined that the sender is neither a party to this case nor is representing a party in this case.” The judge “rejected” the arrangement, which she deemed to be a “gift,” and returned it to the flower shop.
The judge notified both Avery’s defense team and attorneys for the prosecution of the arrangement. It’s unclear from her letter whether the sheriff’s department traced the flowers to someone associated with SAIG or whether someone posed as a member of the group to tarnish the group’s image.
Judge Sutkiewicz recently denied additional requests by Avery’s attorney for a new trial. That decision is likely what led to the gift.
The judge was correct to return the gift. Under the Wisconsin Code of Judicial Conduct, a “gift” is broadly defined as “the payment or receipt of anything of value without valuable consideration.” The rules state that “[a] judge may not accept, and shall urge members of the judge’s family residing in the judge’s household not to accept, a gift, favor or loan from anyone.” The rule is followed by a series of exemptions which apply to things like “materials supplied by publishers on a complimentary basis for official use;” gifts from friends on special occasions such as holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries; standard bank loans in the normal course of business; and standard scholarships or fellowships. Judges can also make use of gifts supplied to a spouse in very limited circumstances unrelated to the judge’s official acts. The rules make it clear that judges need to be wary of gifts where a person “has come or is likely to come or whose interests have come or are likely to come before the judge.”
Meanwhile, the bribery of a public officer or employee in Wisconsin is a felony punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and imprisonment of up to six years. The state’s bribery law covers anyone who intends “to influence the conduct of any public officer . . . in relation to any matter . . . pending or [which] might come before the officer.” It’s questionable whether the law has enough bite to charge whomever sent the flowers, but — bottom line — it wasn’t good.
This is not the first time in the saga of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey that a judge received a communication which threw a charge into the proceedings. Before his trial began, co-defendant Brendan Dassey wrote a letter to former judge Jerome Fox to complain about his attorney Len Kachinsky. Dassey’s message to Judge fox with the statement, “P.S. — Me and my mom think you’re a good judge.” Fox disclosed the letter to both sides and, eventually, dismissed Kachinsky from the case.
Avery and Dassey were convicted in separate 2007 trials for the murder of freelance photographer Teresa Halbach. She was last seen October 31, 2005. The cases against Avery and Dassey were profiled in the hit Netflix film Making A Murderer.
Aaron Keller is an attorney who hosts live streaming trials on the Law&Crime Network. Formerly a local journalist in Wisconsin, he covered the search for Teresa Halbach and the subsequent prosecutions of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey in 2005, 2006, and 2007.