by Jake Anderson
Will the third installment of Making a Murderer expose the true killer…or is Avery a sadistic psychopath using true crime media to falsify a narrative of innocence?
Making a Murderer was one of the biggest true crime docuseries events of the streaming era, helping to launch dozens more criminal investigation film projects. Unlike previous, and similarly episodic constructs, seen in The Staircase and The Jinx, featuring accused murderers Michael Peterson and Robert Durst respectively, Making a Murderer seemed to ostensibly serve as an exculpatory film, which was presented from the point of view of Averty and his friends and family. The series’ voluminously documented examples of investigative anomalies and police negligence made a strong case for Avery’s innocence, though a vocal faction of people maintained that Avery was guilty. Even after the poorly received sequel series, Steven Avery remained in prison for a murder he swears he did not commit.
For those unfamiliar with the narrative timeline presented by the docuseries, the past is prologue–and important to understanding this case. Steven Avery’s family, who owned a 40-acre auto salvage yard in Wisconsin, was despised by some locals, particularly certain elements within the small-town police department of Manitowoc County. When police arrested 22-year-old Avery for rape in 1985 and sent him to prison, the Avery family insisted he was innocent. Eighteen years later, DNA evidence exonerated Avery and he was released.
Less than two years later, right as the Avery family planned a $36 million lawsuit against the humiliated Manitowoc judicial system for wrongful imprisonment, he was arrested again–this time charged with murder.
The murder/mutilation of photographer Teresa Halbach on October 31, 2005 has remained veiled in mystery and controversy for these many years, if for no other reason than the skepticism trained on the police departments of both Wisconsin’s Manitowoc and Calumet Counties, who are accused of planting evidence as part of a decades-long vendetta against the Avery family.
When Halbach’s Toyota RAV4 was found on the 40-acre Avery family compound, Manitowoc County was not even supposed to participate in the investigation because of their officers’ conflict of interest–namely their being humiliated during Avery’s civil lawsuit. Yet their assistance of Calumet County’s police investigation was rife with suspicion from the beginning.
“Were you looking at those plates when you called them in?” Avery’s attorney, Dean Strang, asked Sergeant Andy Colborn
The answer begs the question: how and why was Colborn calling in the victim’s license plate number two days before the vehicle was stumbled upon by volunteer searchers? One logical explanation is that Colborn and the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department had already found Halbach’s missing car and were carefully devising the discovery of the evidence that would be used against Avery.
Add to this the note written by investigator Tom Fassbender to DNA technician Sherry Culhane: “Try to put [Halbach] in his house or his garage.”
Six days into the search of the Avery compound, the note presages DNA evidence on its way to the lab and explicitly instructs the technician to help corroborate the narrative that Halbach’s DNA was found specifically in Avery’s house or garage.
In response to whether the police framed Avery, Manitowoc County Sheriff Ken Petersen, replied: “If we wanted to eliminate Steve, it would’ve been a whole lot easier to eliminate Steve than to frame Steve…or if we wanted him killed, it would be much easier just to kill him.”
Some people believe that Making A Murderer glossed over certain aspects of Avery and the case against him. In fact, a considerable number of crime analysts, including Nancy Grace, believe Avery is guilty despite the police having it in for him. Investigators and prosecutors say physical evidence (some of exposed after the series aired) proves Avery’s guilt.
Circumstantial evidence–some of it compelling, some of it apocryphal–suggests: Avery had plans to build a torture chamber; Halbach had been creeped out by Avery and didn’t want to go back to his house for her AutoTrader story (according to friends, she had practically begged not to return); Avery specifically requested ‘that same girl who was here last time’ in his AutoTrader appointment and used a different name to ‘trick’ Halbach, who was suspicious of him; he used *67 to hide his number; police found contents from Halbach’s purse concealed near Avery’s compound.
Perhaps the more compelling, ‘hard’ pieces of evidence pointing toward guilt are: the Halbach bone fragments supposedly ‘intertwined’ with Avery’s burned tires; Avery’s and Halbach’s blood both found in Avery’s car; and then there is the ballistic evidence, which a thread of Redditors claim is the most damning evidence, which posits that the bullet containing Halbach’s DNA came from Avery’s rifle.
Avery’s defense lawyers say the circumstantial evidence does not necessarily show someone who planned to commit murder and they contest each of the major pieces of evidence: they believe the bone fragments were moved from one burn site to another to frame Avery; citing the fact that police had a vial of Avery’s blood in an evidence locker leftover from his rape case, they say the blood evidence was planted; defenders of Avery say the bullet was found 4 months after the murder and that Avery’s fingerprints were not on the gun, meaning someone else could have used it in service of framing him. It’s also pointed out that the technician who reported this ballistic evidence is the same technician ordered by police to “put [Halbach] in [Avery’s house].”
Then there is the ‘confession’ from Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey, a below-70 IQ teen considered ‘cognitively deficient,’ who was also charged with the crime and imprisoned, even though a much broader coalition of analysts believe Dassey had nothing to do with the crime. Dassey, after a four-hour interrogation, was allegedly coerced into a confession by investigators.
Somewhat reminiscent of the problematic confession that doomed the West Memphis 3 in the 1990s, Dassey’s confession was critical in Avery’s conviction but has been derided as coercive. Dassey’s own lawyer, who was reprimanded by the judge for misconduct and labeled “the World’s Worst Court Appointed Defense Attorney,” commissioned an investigator for the defense who called the Avery family “pure evil” and insisted “we need to end the gene pool here.”
So we’re back to where we started: a case in which virtually all the evidence is either tainted or highly contested.
Shocking New Report
But a new report adds another twist in this already mind-bending saga of criminal justice.
A new article by Newsweek reports that an unidentified Wisconsin inmate has confessed to murdering Halbach and was interviewed by the filmmakers for the forthcoming third installment of the Avery saga called, “Convicting a Murderer,” directed by Shawn Rech.
“We haven’t confirmed the legitimacy of the confession, but seeing as it was given by a notable convicted murderer from Wisconsin, we feel responsible to deliver any and all possible evidence to law enforcement and legal teams,” Rech said. “Having been in production for 20 months, we’ve uncovered an unfathomable amount of information and evidence that is leading us to the truth. Our investigation does not end here.”
The Avery case almost reminds one of Adnan Syed, the man convicted of murder at age 17 and featured in season 1 of the podcast Serial. Both cases are about guys that you want to believe are innocent–screwed by a system that corruptly punishes poor or marginalized suspects–even as a part of you asks if you’re being fooled by a violent, sadistic sociopath.
And one might feel an echo of the OJ Simpson case? Perhaps police got the right guy but in the wrong way, using corrupted evidence to ensure a conviction (which, of course, backfired catastrophically in the Simpson case). It’s one of those seminal, and maddening, true-crime questions that may never be answered.
People remain sharply divided over the case. Lurking underneath is the nauseating thought that if Avery is innocent, someone got away with murder (though maybe apprehended later for another crime). Parallel to that thought is the idea that Avery could be exonerated because of corrupted evidence–even if he is actually guilty. Perhaps the new series, which claims to have a watershed confession, will be the adjudicator of truth we need.