Steven Avery is an unlikely icon for innocence.
In contrast to “Serial” podcast’s Adnan Syed, he isn’t particularly charismatic or well spoken, nor does he have a relatable story – in Syed’s case, a high school romance – attached to the murder for which he has been convicted.
But here is what Avery, 53, does have: “Making a Murderer,” a 10-episode Netflix documentary series that raises questions about the circumstances surrounding his arrest and conviction. And with it, a collection of scenes, documents and theories that present an image of innocence that Avery never really enjoyed as a free man.
In 2007, Avery was convicted by a jury in Calumet County, Wis., of the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach. He is serving a life sentence in Wisconsin’s Waupun Correctional Institution, and fans of the documentary say they want him out.
The series has compelled nearly 200,000 people to sign Change.org and White House petitions calling for Avery’s pardon, an impossibility under the Constitution, which allows presidential pardons only for federal criminal convictions. One petition also advocates for the release of Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, who was convicted in a separate trial of being an accessory to the murder and sexual assault.
After watching “Making a Murder,” writes Michael Seyedian, who started the Change.org petition, “I am outraged with the injustices which have been allowed to compound and left unchecked in the case of Steven Avery. ... Avery’s unconstitutional mistreatment at the hands of corrupt local law enforcement is completely unacceptable and is an abomination of due process.”
This declaration appears in an undated courtroom photo of Avery: mustached, with a furrowed brow and bags under his eyes, the latest “innocence project” taken up by a public emboldened by a story of true crime and punishment.
The 53-year-old Wisconsin native grew up in Manitowoc County, where his family ran an auto salvage business and built a reputation for being troublemakers. They were uneducated, outliers in the small community.
The young Avery sported a beard. He said that he was “stupid and hanging around with the wrong people” growing up, which resulted in his involvement with a couple of burglaries and one act of animal cruelty. (A 2006 article in Milwaukee Magazine describes the cat incident in grim detail, noting that a few months after being released from prison for breaking into a tavern, “Avery and another man were charged with cruelty to animals after dousing Avery’s cat with gasoline and oil and tossing it into a bonfire at the Avery junkyard.”) But is he a rapist? A killer?
The first charge was tacked onto his name in 1985, then removed 18 years later. Avery spent years in prison for the violent sexual assault of a beloved community figure only to have DNA evidence reveal that the crime was not committed by him.
Avery maintained his innocence the whole time, and he filed a $36 million civil suit against the county for wrongful conviction after he was exonerated in 2003. For the first time in Avery’s life, he was believed to be the good guy, fielding TV interviews and public appearances that painted him as a sterling example of resilience in the face of unjust punishment.
The reprieve was short-lived. Two years later he was charged with killing Halbach.
After the photographer went missing, her vehicle was found in the Avery family’s junkyard, and prosecutors said DNA tests revealed Avery’s blood in the car.
Once again, he denied any wrongdoing. The jury did not buy it.
“The only thing I can think, they are trying to railroad me again and see if they can get away with it this time,” Avery told the Associated Press in 2005.
“Making a Murderer” suggests Avery’s innocence by pointing to all the parts of his life that made him appear all too guilty in the eyes of the jury. He had a criminal record, that one overturned conviction aside. His brothers had a history of sexual assault and burglary charges. Avery’s then-16-year-old nephew Dassey, who has a learning disability, told police that his uncle made him rape Halbach and help dispose of her body.
Then the documentary conjectures: Could the same things that made Avery look guilty actually have been what made him easy to frame?
At least 170,000 people think so.
Many of the comments on the Change.org petition are lengthy, with passionate pleas for Avery and Dassey’s release. “I am a former military police officer, hold a degree in criminal justice, and am a current law student,” wrote Whitney Rasberry of Friendswood, Texas. “I have read and/or watched thousands of criminal cases. I have NEVER seen anything like this.”
Meanwhile, Manitowoc County Sheriff Robert Hermann has been fielding hundreds of angry calls about Avery since the documentary was released on Netflix on Dec. 18.
Although he had not seen the series, Hermann told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last Wednesday that he believes it is one-sided based on the calls he has received.
The special prosecutor in Avery’s murder trial, Ken Kratz, told the local TV station, WBAY-TV that he stands by the conviction. “Two murderers, in my opinion, were taken off the street,” said Kratz, who was contacted by the series producers but declined to be interviewed. He told Fox 11 News: “I believe there to be 80 to 90 percent of the physical evidence, the forensic evidence, that ties Steven Avery to this murder never to have been presented in this documentary.”
Halbach’s family members declined to appear in the documentary, but said in a statement to WBAY-TV: “Having just passed the 10-year anniversary of the death of our daughter and sister, Teresa, we are saddened to learn that individuals and corporations continue to create entertainment and to seek profit from our loss.”
Where things stand
Steven Avery is currently serving his sentence – life in prison without the possibility of parole – at Wisconsin’s Waupun Correctional Institution. In 2011, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals refused his request for a new trial and the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to review the case.
The documentary reports that Avery reached out to the Wisconsin Innocence Project, which was instrumental in getting the 1985 conviction overturned, but that the group declined to help. A Dec. 22 post on the Innocence Project website notes that “a member of the Innocence Network is currently looking into some aspects of (Avery’s) case.”
Toward the end of the series, the filmmakers gather Avery’s former attorneys for a discussion about his potential legal options. Jerome Buting, who represented Avery in his trial over Halbach’s murder, suggests that newly discovered evidence could be the key to getting Avery a new trial.
Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, then 16, told police that Avery had instructed him to rape Halbach and to help him dispose of her body. The documentary describes Dassey as learning disabled. His court-appointed pretrial attorney, Len Kachinsky, was eventually removed from his case after allowing Dassey to be interrogated by police without a lawyer present.
At his trial, Dassey’s new attorneys argued that their client’s confession was false, and the teen repeatedly said he fabricated his statements under pressure from law enforcement. In April 2007, Dassey was convicted of homicide, sexual assault and mutilation of a corpse.
Dassey unsuccessfully appealed his conviction. The Wisconsin Supreme Court also declined to review his case. Last year, Dassey’s legal team filed a federal habeas petition in an effort to get his conviction vacated on the basis that his constitutional rights were violated. Now 26, Dassey is serving a life sentence at Green Bay Correctional. He will be eligible for parole in 2048.
Bethonie Butler, The Washington Post