For those of you who haven’t watched Netflix’s 10-episode documentary Making a Murderer, do so immediately. It’s the most addictive, infuriating, engrossing and maddening true crime story since the first season of Serial — in fact, it may be better. Like Serial, it’s based on a mystery surrounding a murder that made huge waves locally, but that those of us who don’t watch Dateline or Nancy Grace have probably never heard about. It’s equal parts thrilling and exasperating (in fact, my wife had to quit after the fourth episode because it made her so angry that she couldn’t watch further).
In short, it’s about a very poor man from a very poor family named Steven Avery, who was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to prison for raping a woman in 1985, only to have DNA evidence exonerate him. After serving 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, he brought suit against the county. Only days after his first deposition in the $36 million suit, he was arrested for the murder of Teresa Halbach.
All of the evidence initially pointed toward Steven Avery as the killer, but as the story unfolds, questions surface. Did Avery kill Halbach, or did the police frame him for the murder to make the lawsuit go away?
Do yourself a favor, and don’t spoil anything about the series before watching it. It’s easy enough to do a Google search and ruin the ending, but the ending doesn’t tell the real story, because the real story is about our messed up legal system and how it deprives the socioeconomically disadvantaged and the uneducated of the presumption of innocence. It’s a crazy story, and viewers of Making a Murderer will find themselves pulling their hair out in furious anger. You will yell “Fuck that guy,” or “Fuck everybody” at least half a dozen times over the course of the series. It’s also wildly addictive, the kind of 10-hour series you’ll inadvertently find yourself binge-watching in a day (even if that day is Christmas Eve).
If you haven’t watched it, go do so now. Everything below will contain spoilers for those who have already watched it.
Here’s where I want to talk about what’s not in the documentary series, because like many of you, I finished the series furious because I was convinced that Steven Avery (and to an even larger extent, Brendan Dassey) had been unfairly framed for the murder by the police and were serving life sentences for crimes they didn’t commit.
To a certain extent, whether Avery and Dassey were guilty or not, like in the Adnan Syed case, it doesn’t matter. The series revealed massive flaws in our legal system. There was unquestionably reasonable doubt in Avery’s case, in spite of the fact that his blood was found in Halbach’s car, the burned body was found on his property, and a bullet with Halbach’s DNA was found in his garage, because there was evidence supporting the fact that the police could have planted that evidence. In fact, I remain convinced — like Avery’s lawyers — that whether Avery committed the murder or not, the police planted evidence to ensure his conviction.
There are, however, a few things that were not presented in the series that convince me that Avery — and maybe even Dassey — were guilty of the murders, which makes the failure of the legal system a slightly less bitter pill to swallow. The process was wrong, but the result — I think — was right. But again, whether he was guilty or not, he never should’ve been convicted based upon the circumstantial evidence, and what Dassey’s lawyer and investigator did to Brendan should not only warrant a new trial, it should result in the permanent disbarment of Dassey’s attorney.
There was clearly some shady shit here, but I snooped around in various Reddit threads and through some local news reports and found a few pieces of evidence not presented in the docuseries that persuade me that Avery was probably guilty. Some of this was presented at trial, while some of it was excluded in pre-trial motions.
Here’s what I found.
— The documentary said that part of Avery’s criminal past included animal cruelty. To my recollection, it didn’t specify exactly what that animal cruelty was. I know that for some of our readers, knowing is enough to want to see Avery get the death sentence regardless of whether he murdered Halbach: He doused a cat in oil and threw it on a bonfire (this is not relevant to the murder trial, but it certainly diminishes the sympathy some of us felt for him).
— Past criminal activity also included threatening a female relative at gunpoint.
— In the months leading up to Halbach’s disappearance, Avery had called Auto Trader several times and always specifically requested Halbach to come out and take the photos.
— Halbach had complained to her boss that she didn’t want to go out to Avery’s trailer anymore, because once when she came out, Avery was waiting for her wearing only a towel (this was excluded for being too inflammatory). Avery clearly had an obsession with Halbach.
— On the day that Halbach went missing, Avery had called her three times, twice from a *67 number to hide his identity.
— The bullet with Halbach’s DNA on it came from Avery’s gun, which always hung above his bed.
— Avery had purchased handcuffs and leg irons like the ones Dassey described holding Halbach only three weeks before (Avery said he’s purchased them for use with his girlfriend, Jodi, with whom he’d had a tumultuous relationship — at one point, he was ordered by police to stay away from her for three days).
— Here’s the piece of evidence that was presented at trial but not in the series that I find most convincing: In Dassey’s illegally obtained statement, Dassey stated that he helped Avery moved the RAV4 into the junkyard and that Avery had lifted the hood and removed the battery cable. Even if you believe that the blood in Halbach’s car was planted by the cops (as I do), there was also non-blood DNA evidence on the hood latch. I don’t believe the police would plant — or know to plant — that evidence.
I certainly believe that there was a tremendous amount of police misconduct in this case. I believe the police helped the case against Avery along by planting evidence (and there’s no doubt in my mind that they planted the RAV4 key in Avery’s trailer). I also don’t believe the prosecution’s theory of events: There’s no way Halbach was raped and had her throat slashed in the trailer without a speck of DNA evidence, and there’s no way she was shot in the garage without any blood splatter evidence. After all, if Avery had somehow used bleach to erase all trace of Halbach’s DNA, he would’ve also cleaned the garage of his own DNA (and the garage still contained lots of Avery’s DNA).
I don’t know how Avery murdered Halbach. I also don’t believe anything that Dassey said in his coerced confession, but I also won’t rule out Dassey’s involvement because he would’ve done anything anyone asked of him. Still, the idea that the police killed Halbach is impossible to believe, not because they weren’t capable of it, but because of the planning and foresight it would’ve required.
I also believe that Adnan Syed is guilty, but in both cases, I don’t believe the jury should’ve convicted because there simply wasn’t enough unimpeachable evidence to support a guilty verdict. I am even more convinced than after Serial that the jury system is fucked, but ironically, in both cases, I also think the jury arrived at the correct conclusion.
Updated: Here’s some additional damning evidence against both Avery and Dassey either not presented in the series, or not presented in its entirety.
— The reporter from the doc who had all the great reaction shots, added this:
— In this phone conversation (transcript in link) with his mother (which is not entirely included in the docuseries), Brendan told his mother that he did it, that Steven made him do it, and that Steven had touched him (and others) inappropriately in the past.
Mom: What all happened, what are you talking about?
Brendan: About what Me & Steven did that day,
Mom: What about it?
Brendan: Well, Mike & Mark & Matt came up one day and took another interview with me and said because they think I was lying but so, they said if I come out with it that I would have to go to jail for 90 years.
Brendan: Ya. But if came out with itT would probably get I dunno about like 20 or less. After the interview they told me if I wanted to say something to her family and said that I was sorry for what I did.
Mom: Then Steven did do it.
Mom: (Mom Crying) Why diddn’t you tell me about this?
Brendan. Ya, but they came out wi.th something that was untrue with me
Mom:. What’s that?
Brendan: They said that I sold crack
Mom: So did you talk to her family?
Brendan: They just asked me if I wanted to say something to them, on the tape.
Mom: Did you?
Brendan: .lust that I was sorry for what I did.
Mom: Did he make you do this?
Mom: Then why didn’t you tell him that.
Brendan: Tell him what
Mom: That Steven made you do it. You know he made you do a lot of things.
Brendan: Ya, I told them that. I even told them about Steven touching me and that.
Mom: What do you mean touching you?
Brendan: He would grab me somewhere where I was uncomfortable.
Mom: Brendan I am your mother.
Mom: Why didn’t you come to me? Why didn’t you tell me? Was this all before this happened?
Brendan: What do you mean?
Mom: All before this happened, did he touch you before all this stuff happened to you.
Mom: Why didn’t you come to me, because then he would have been gone then and this wouldn’t have happened.
Brendan: Ya ..
Mom: Yes, and you would still be here with me.
Brendan: Yes, Well you know I did it.
Brendan. You know he always touched us and that.
Mom: I didn’t think there. He used to horse around with you guys.
Brendan: Ya, but you remember he would always do stuff to Brian and that.
Mom: What do you mean.
Brendan: Well he would like fake pumping him
Mom: Goofing around
Brendan: Ya but, like that one time when he was going with what’s her name Jessica .. sister. Mom: Teresa?
Brendan: Ya. That one day when she was over, Steven and Blaine and Brian and I was downstairs and Steven was touching her and that.
— There’s no denying that it was unethical as hell for the investigator of Dassey’s own attorney to elicit a confession out of Brendan, but the documentary suggests that the investigator peppered Brendan with leading questions and basically fed him the answers. From the full transcript, that is not the case at all. Brendan not only confessed, he gave a very detailed account of what happened. They had sex with Teresa on the bed, then they carried her out to the garage, where they cut her throat, and that’s where Steven shot her five times with the .22 Brendan said he pulled from above his bed. Then they threw her in the fire. She begged for her life through the entire ordeal. Brendan even cut off some of her hair. Then they cleaned up with bleach and burned all the clothes in the bonfire.
The bits and pieces from the interview provided in the series make it seem like Brendan is kind of making it up as he goes along or is being fed answers. The 21-page transcript leaves very little doubt of Brendan’s role. But again, Brendan’s IQ is 70. He’d been molested by Steven in prior occasions. Basically, Steven forced him to do this, and Brendan wasn’t bright enough to say no. He’s also not bright enough to make up a story that matches much of the evidence, without being fed the answers.
On the other hand, make no mistake: That was tantamount to a coerced confession. From a legal perspective, the information contained within it was worthless. Brendan would’ve said anything at this point, and it should’ve never been admitted at trial. Yet, it was, and to any jury seeing it — and the specificity of the details — you might see why they believed Avery and Dassey committed the crime.