MANITOWOC — Neither a passerby with a cellphone nor a police car with a video camera ignited last December’s conflagration of alleged police misconduct.
In a culture with a fast-fading line between reality and entertainment, where the power of emotion routinely trumps the more considered conclusions of reason, the streaming video giant’s documentary series “Making a Murderer” took the nation by storm — for better or worse.
If the O.J. Simpson case defined the last century’s obsession with American crime and its system of justice, “Making a Murderer” makes the case for owning that distinction in this one. Legions of viewers, transformed into online sleuths, continue to parse through the details of the mind-bending case of Steven Avery, the Manitowoc County man who was wrongly convicted in 1985 — only to be arrested two years after his release from prison for the horrific murder of Teresa Halbach.
According to published reports, Avery’s new attorneys vow to file a motion for a new trial soon with nothing short of iron-clad proof of his and his young accomplice’s innocence.
All of which means exactly nothing for those of us at ground zero. I am a board member for the Innocence Project, which was instrumental in freeing Avery when he was wrongfully convicted the first time. But now it’s clear, following Halbach’s murder and my exhaustive research, that Avery should stay behind bars.
The widely acclaimed “Making a Murderer” series offered unyielding sympathy for its protagonist and considerable contempt for the police and prosecutors who returned him to prison. And it has added another layer to an already tragedy-laden crime story that has bedeviled my adopted hometown of Manitowoc for 30 years. By its skillful use of film and sound techniques and omission of facts that belie its conclusion, the series all but convicts local police of planting evidence to frame Avery a second time, a narrative widely accepted by nearly everyone whose only familiarity with the Avery case is the documentary itself.
Clinging to claims of objectivity, filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos correctly point out that truth is elusive in the Avery case. But by excluding facts that don’t fit their agenda and manipulating others, they have distorted the truth beyond all recognition and have decided for the rest of us what to believe. “High-brow vigilante justice” is how Kathryn Schulz put it in her column in the New Yorker.
Transformed into would-be jurors unknowingly manipulated by an all-knowing judge in the form of the series’ creators, viewers are shown only one side of the case with nary a chance of reaching a just and true verdict. The prosecution’s refutation of evidence-planting claims during cross examination and rebuttal is frequently omitted, and Avery’s criminal history is deconstructed beyond credulity.
His lighting a cat afire after and dousing it with gasoline is passed off as an accident while horsing around with juvenile friends. Nor, we’re told, did he intend to harm his neighbor when he rammed into her vehicle, approached her after she lost control, and while pointing a rifle at her head ordered her to get into his car. As “Making a Murderer” would have it, he was merely upset because she was spreading rumors.
Never mind that he only let her go after she pointed out that her daughter would freeze if she was left out in the cold. Or that he had stalked her for months with a pair of binoculars, sexually gratifying himself as she drove by. On one occasion, he even ran into the road in front of her, nude.
Nor are viewers informed that Avery set up the murder, concealing his identity when he called for Halbach, asking her employer to send “that same girl they sent out last time” for a photo shoot of his sister’s car. During an appointment three weeks earlier he had frightened Halbach when he approached her wearing only a towel.
He had purchased handcuffs and leg irons on the previous day, a discovery consistent with his young accomplice’s recounting of events leading up to the murder. Left out too was his sketching a “torture chamber” while in prison and his fantasizing to fellow inmates about using it to sexually assault and murder young women when he got out, eerily foretelling the atmosphere surrounding Halbach’s final hour.
Donning the mantle of martyrdom is unbecoming for a government official, especially for a prosecutor whose predecessors in law enforcement so egregiously violated Avery’s constitutional rights in 1985. I acknowledge that the series is not without value. It has brought widespread public attention to the shortcomings of a criminal justice system badly in need of reform. Therein lies its opportunity for redemption — not in its creators’ desire, however strong their protestations to the contrary, to upset the conviction of the perpetrator of a ghastly murder.
If I knew no more about the Avery case than what “Making a Murderer” fed to its viewers, I too would be outraged by its conclusions. Having observed the trials from a distance and not prosecuted them myself, my own confidence in the juries’ verdicts was to some extent fractured by the series. But I aimed to find the truth, elusive though it may be.
“Indefensible: The Missing Truth About Steven Avery, Teresa Halbach, and ‘Making a Murderer’,” recounts my independent investigation of the facts and circumstances surrounding the Steven Avery case. With as open and unbiased a mind as possible, I started over from scratch and followed the facts wherever they led. After an exhaustive examination of all the evidence, it is clear who the real victim is in the second Avery case, and it isn’t Avery. It’s a cherished young woman who loved life named Teresa Halbach, and her family misses her dearly.
To honor Halbach’s memory, it’s time to set the record straight. While Avery’s wrongful conviction in 1985 was one of local law enforcement’s darkest hours, his conviction for murder 22 years later was one of its finest. The authorities got it right this time. Barring the discovery of new evidence pointing squarely to his innocence, the nation’s most famous exoneree is now rightfully where he belongs — in prison for the rest of his life without the possibility of parole.