How many more Steven Avery's are out there?
An FKD Feature exclusive

“Making a Murderer,” a 10-part documentary series released on Netflix last November, has exposed some glaring flaws in our criminal justice system to the general public.

The documentary covers the case of Steven Avery, who was released from prison after serving 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit, only to be convicted of murder a year later and sentenced to prison for the rest of his life.

The documentary left out some key evidence against Avery, but otherwise exposed flaws in the investigation and case against him, including indications that police planted evidence, coerced investigations and otherwise made serious errors in judgement.

At the end of the series, the viewer is left wondering whether Avery is guilty. However, the bigger point of the documentary is not the question of his guilt, but the question of whether the immoral and expensive police oversight that Avery faced is occurring in other cases around the country without the public noticing.

Summary of “Making a Murderer” *Spoiler Alert!*

When Steven Avery was 23 years old, he was convicted of raping a Manitowoc woman, Penny Beerntsen. After serving 18 years in prison, new technology tested old DNA evidence from the case and found Avery innocent of the assault. He was released from prison.

Avery filed a $36 million lawsuit against Manitowoc County, its former sheriff, Thomas Kocourek, and its former district attorney, Denis Vogel.

Just a little over a year later, on October 31, 2005, Manitowoc resident Teresa Halbach was scheduled to meet with Avery at his home to photograph one of his vehicles for Auto Trader Magazine. Halbach went missing that day.

On November 11, 2005, Avery was charged with the murder of Halbach after her car and charred bone fragments were found at his salvage yard.

Because of Avery’s pending civil case against Manitowoc County, authorities from a neighboring county were requested to lead the investigation against Avery. However, Manitowoc County authorities remained involved in the case and in the searching of Avery’s home.

On March 2, 2006, Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, confessed to investigators that he had assisted Avery in the sexual assault, murder and mutilation of Teresa Halbach.

Avery’s lawyers argued that Manitowoc investigators tampered with evidence to convict Avery due to his pricey lawsuit against them. Dassey’s lawyer argued that the investigators coerced Dassey into confessing, by pulling him out of school and interrogating him.

Avery was found guilty of murdering Halbach, and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Dassey was found guilty of murdering Halbach, and was sentenced to life in prison with possibility of parole in 2048.

Problems with the Case and Results of The Documentary

Avery’s lawyers pointed out that Avery was a target from the very beginning of Halbach’s disappearance. The day that her car was found, the Manitowoc County sheriff called into dispatch to make sure Avery was in custody.

After that, the lawyers pointed out that investigators were intent on pinning Avery for the crime. Several searches of Avery’s entire property revealed no evidence, but on the day that a Manitowoc County deputy was involved, they found the key to Halbach’s vehicle in Avery’s bedroom.

Because of Avery’s pending lawsuit against the county, there was undoubtedly a motive for them to want Avery implicated for the crime, his lawyers argued.

When Brendan Dassey confessed to helping Avery, the lawyers pointed out that Dassey was a mentally disabled youth that was coerced into confessing by investigators. The investigators had pulled Dassey out of school and told him that if he confessed he would spend less time in prison. Dassey had a significantly low IQ and was placed in several special education courses.

"If the Wisconsin Innocence Project hadn’t picked up his case and demanded new testing of old DNA evidence, Avery would have spent the rest of his life in jail for a crime he didn’t commit."

The Defense Attorney who is portrayed in the documentary has since come out to state the evidence missing from Making a Murderer, including other items of Halbach’s being found on Avery’s property, Halbach’s personal opinion of Avery, and additional evidence found on her car. He has stated that this evidence is further convincing of Avery’s guilt.

However, since the release of the documentary, almost 200,000 people have signed a petition asking for presidential pardon for Steven Avery and his nephew Brendon Dassey, pointing to the serious flaws in the investigation and conviction of both.

In the end, the question of Avery’s guilt, though burning, isn’t nearly as crucial as the question of whether the police department and criminal justice system that handled his case did so in a reasonable and just manner.

The Bigger Picture: What Avery’s Case Means

One of the most shocking moments of the documentary is when we find out that the Manitowoc Sheriff’s department learned that Avery was likely innocent of the rape of Beerntsen eight years before he was actually released, but chose to bury the information under the rug and leave him behind bars. If the Wisconsin Innocence Project hadn’t picked up his case and demanded new testing of old DNA evidence, Avery would have spent the rest of his life in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

There are Innocence Projects all over the United States that work to get prisoners released for crimes they did not commit. To this date, there have been 317 convicted prisoners released from prison after DNA evidence exonerated them. The Innocence Projects currently have more than 300 cases on their docket.

“Making a Murderer” shows us that there are times when police officers and court systems will not work to defend the rights of the people, especially once they are convicted.

The terrifying fact is that the Innocence Projects may be the only safeguard in place to defend innocent people against glaring mistakes made in our criminal justice system.

This documentary showed the public some very disturbing problems within police and the courts that we must spread awareness of. The best thing that we as a public can do is to pay attention to the flaws in our criminal justice system and speak out against them — and not just when Netflix tells us to.


Posted 01.14.2016 - 03:15 pm EDT