Among the hastily crafted messages etched into one Lauinger Library fourth-floor cubicle, three pen-scribbled words blend in almost unnoticeably: “Free Steven Avery.” Upon first glance, this message, which is no bigger than its neighboring notes, does not stand out. But its weight can be found in the earnest plea the three words represent: justice for Steven Avery, a man from Manitowoc County, Wis., who is currently serving a life sentence for a 2005 murder he claims he did not commit.
In December, Avery’s name and bearded mug shot resurfaced in the mainstream media. He was the subject of a 10-episode Netflix documentary series: “Making a Murderer,” directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos. The series brought to light the complexity and possible judicial malpractice in Avery’s case, raising questions about the justice system and reminding audiences of the power of documentary filmmaking. “Making a Murderer” caught the attention of binge-watchers worldwide, including students and professors alike on the Hilltop, who have formed their own analyses of the case.
Warning: Spoilers ahead
A Broken System
On Oct. 31, 2005, a 25-year-old photographer named Teresa Halbach went missing. She was last seen alive on Steven Avery’s family’s auto salvage lot taking pictures of his car on assignment for Auto Trader Magazine. On Nov. 11, Steven Avery was charged with the murder of Halbach after her car keys were found in Avery’s bedroom and bone remains were unearthed on his property. Avery steadfastly maintained his innocence and alleged that he was set up for a crime he did not commit, again.
In fact, two years earlier, Avery was exonerated of a crime for which he spent 18 years in prison on the basis of new DNA evidence. In 1985, Penny Beerntsen was sexually assaulted while jogging on a beach near her home in Wisconsin, and police officials pointed to Avery as a prime suspect based on questionable evidence. He was subsequently convicted of sexual assault, attempted first-degree murder and false imprisonment, all the while maintaining his innocence.
Soon after his release, Avery began the process of filing a lawsuit against the organization responsible for his wrongful conviction: the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, citing a negligent and discriminatory approach to his investigation. This advocacy was halted with Avery’s arrest for Halbach’s murder.
Despite Avery’s insistence that he was not responsible for the murder and that the sheriff’s department was out to get him again, key pieces of evidence built a compelling case against him. Investigators conducted a thorough search of his home and the salvage lot, finding a blood sample in Halbach’s car that matched Avery, and discovered her Toyota RAV4 car keys that contained his DNA in his bedroom, casting doubt on Avery’s claim of innocence.
On paper, the evidence appeared to be damning. But, as the series shows, it became increasingly clear that there was reason to doubt Steven’s guilt. Months after his arrest, Avery’s defense lawyers, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, found a vial containing Avery’s blood with a hole through the seal, signaling that the vial had been tampered with. Suspicion was also raised when Halbach’s car keys were only discovered under a shoe in Avery’s bedroom days after the detectives initially searched the premises.
Despite the sheriff department’s promise to stay out of the investigation lest allegations of a conflict of interest be raised, two members of the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department contributed to the search effort. In fact, it was these two members who were responsible for finding the keys and submitting them as evidence.
John Copacino, director of Georgetown University Law Center’s Criminal Justice Clinic, said he was shocked by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department’s active participation in the investigation, despite the evident conflict of interest.
“That shouldn’t be happening. It’s not against the law, but it’s against the ethics of the police department. So it’s not an illegal search, but it gives the defense a whole bunch of arguments which they had and which they pressed very well, that [the jury] can’t trust [the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department]. The sheriff’s department had every incentive, because of this lawsuit, to be biased against Steve Avery,” Copacino said.
The possibility of impropriety is hard to deny. However, Copacino said accusations of law enforcement tampering with or planting evidence are difficult to prove.
“[Claims of evidence tampering] are all circumstantial evidence cases — very rarely do you have an admission or proof in the form of direct evidence. So usually, you’re making inferences,” Copacino said.
Although the accusations of evidence tampering seemed credible, they would be difficult to prove in a court of law without evidence. The physical evidence found in the investigation was enough to raise suspicion of Avery. But it was only months into the investigation that the real nail in his coffin was hammered in by a lumbering, diffident 16-year-old: Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey.
When first interviewed by police, Dassey told investigators that neither he nor his uncle had any involvement in Halbach’s disappearance. A few months later, in March 2006, the investigators requested another interview with Dassey. The recorded video of the interview, as shown on the series, depicts Brendan — a boy who “had trouble in school,” according to interviews from family and friends — as nervous and uncomfortable as investigators probed deeper into his testimony.
The investigators promise Brendan that it would be advantageous for him to tell the truth. Brendan, quite possibly guided by the investigators’ leading questions, told them that his uncle had sexually assaulted Halbach, forced Brendan to take part in a gruesome rape and made him help with disposing the body. The confession was equally appalling and dubious. There was no physical evidence to corroborate Dassey’s ghastly recollection of the day Halbach went missing, engendering skepticism on the veracity of his confession.
“He said she was tied up and her throat was slit on the bed, and raped there. There wasn’t one speck of evidence — no semen, no blood — if that had happened, there would be DNA all over that room, and there’s nothing,” Copacino said.
Although Brendan’s account seems unlikely, his confessing to a crime he did not commit seems equally unlikely, if not counterintuitive. However, Copacino said individuals may sometimes be motivated to tell false confessions.
“[Lead prosecutor Ken Kratz] got up and said people don’t confess if they’re innocent, and that is simply not true. There are dozens and dozens of exonerations where the defendants confessed, and they confessed because they were led down a path and they were told that it was going to be better or they thought it was going to be better [if they confessed]. And people confess to things they didn’t do all the time for all sorts of different reasons. And the jury needed to know that,” Copacino said.
Avery’s defense attorneys were unable to prove any impropriety on the part of law enforcement, and the jury found Avery guilty of the murder of Halbach and felony possession of a firearm, beyond a reasonable doubt. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Dassey suffered a similar fate in his trial: He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole in 2048 for his involvement in the rape and death of Halbach, despite the inconsistency of his confession and the lack of physical evidence linking him to the crime.
Wisconsin courts have denied both Avery’s and Dassey’s requests for new trials. According to Copacino, their only real chance of exoneration is if new evidence is presented. The 10th episode’s concluding fade to black mirrors the same finality of Dassey and Avery’s prospects: They have essentially reached the end of their legal road.
Documenting or Depicting?
The series weaves down a winding path of emotion; viewers vacillate between disbelief, relief, shock, ambivalence and anger. It is this stranger-than-fiction, unsettling narrative that enthralls its viewers and arrests them to the screen. The long-form style of this documentary gives the viewer a front row seat to the reality of the judicial system in our country — witness statements, interrogations, courtroom proceedings.
The show’s directors, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, spent 10 years researching and following Avery’s case, gaining access to many important documents, footage and testimonies. After the show was rejected by PBS and HBO, the pair pitched it to Netflix. From there, the show reached the computer and television screens of millions of young viewers who would possibly have otherwise missed the show entirely.
“What’s really attractive about this show, to audiences and to me, is the idea that you essentially get to be on a jury, playing the role of juror in deciding whether this evidence is enough to convict [Avery]. Episode by episode you develop an opinion until the very end when you have this formed opinion,” Justin Chen (COL ’17), an avid fan of the series, said.
Chen’s fascination with the case speaks to the influence of documentary filmmaking on the audience’s investment in what it often believes to be an objective presentation of reality. While such an approach affords the viewer inside access to the complexities and procedures of such processes, it also gives viewers the false illusion that they know everything about the situation and can make a truly informed conclusion.
According to Bernard Cook, associate dean of film and media studies at Georgetown, documentary viewers often place more trust in the filmmakers and approach it as an objective depiction of reality, rather than a “creative treatment of actuality.”
Since the release of the documentary, pieces of information that had been left out of the series have been disseminated to the public. In December, OnMilwaukee.com published an article entitled “14 Pieces of Troubling Evidence ‘Making a Murderer’ Left out or Glossed Over.” The list cited reports that Avery’s DNA from his sweat was found under the latch of Halbach’s car, and that various women had raised allegations of sexual misconduct against Avery in the past. These facts, which raise questions about Avery’s claim of innocence, went unmentioned in the series, highlighting the difficult question documentary filmmakers face: How do you frame a compelling narrative and depict the truth as accurately as possible?
“Documentaries are always part entertainment, part real, part shaped, part actual. And the art of documentary is in the blend of those two things — shaping access to reality. So no documentary is ever showing us the real world, because the real world is much bigger and more complicated than the apparatus of the camera or whatever can capture. People want more,” Cook said. “It’s still leaving out an enormous amount of information, which is where the Internet comes in.”
“Making a Murderer” has infiltrated current debates, primarily thanks to the Internet. When the series was released, viewers quickly took to Reddit to broadcast their own theories or to exclaim their love or hatred of a specific “character.” Two petitions have formed in the past two months, one on Change.org and another on the White House website, to grant Avery a federal pardon. Even Avery’s lawyers are receiving attention from viewers. For Valentine’s Day, Buzzfeed featured 15 Dean Strang- and Jerry Buting-themed gift ideas.
Neil Stroul, an adjunct professor in the School of Continuing Studies who has worked in the field of psychology for 40 years, said there is a connection between the media’s obsession with the Avery case and a decades-old traffic problem. According to Stroul, when there is an accident on the highway, it is often the other drivers – those not involved in the crash – who are making you late for work, as many people feel compelled to slow down and evaluate the extent of the collision.
“There’s some perverse voyeur curiosity that we all possess to witness these train wrecks,” Stroul said.
This may explain the public’s fascination with crime in general. Although many audience members come from different backgrounds, and therefore are unable to relate with Avery, many viewers, including those in the Georgetown community, have found themselves invested in the case.
As Stroul suggested, the magic element that keeps students rooting for Avery – the underdog of the justice system – may be our age.
“Injustice still elicits a big reaction when you’re young. You haven’t become cynical enough yet to say, ‘Well that’s the way the world works. You get screwed,’” Stroul said.
Whether it is the naivete of our youth or the skillful hand of a persuasive documentarian, “Making a Murderer” has seemed to do the impossible. It has made viewers fall in love with a man convicted of murder, and left them itching to sit through another 10 hours of witness statements and court proceedings.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Halbac’s murder occurred in 2007, and that the key in Avery’s room were found weeks after the initial search. The murder occurred in 2005, and the keys were found days after the initial search.