Thursday, 14 January 2016

Making a Murderer

Making a Murderer
Courtesy of Netflix

Around the middle of last week my brain slowly picked up that more and more people were talking about 'Making a Murderer' and that it was compulsive viewing. By the weekend I couldn't ignore the pull to see it any longer, and after watching it over three nights, I'm glad I've seen it.

If you've not heard about it, 'Making a Murderer' is a ten-part documentary series released by Netflix in December. It was filmed over the course of ten years and covers the story of Steven Avery who served 18 years in prison for sexual assault and attempted murder before being exonerated of the crime. Two years after his release he was arrested for murder. The series also covers the arrest and prosecution of his nephew, Brendan Dassey, for the same crime.

As with many other viewers, I found the series incredible. The series seemed to make such a good job of suggesting the innocence of both Steven and Brendan, that I wanted to find out what had been omitted from the documentary, to see if I could follow the thinking of the juries.

There is no shortage of information in the public domain, some of it seems reliable, some of it less so. I've summarised what I've found out, and how this affects my thoughts concerning the guilt of the two parties below.

You may want to stop reading at the this point if you've not seen the series and intend to.

Steven Avery

As mentioned above, the series is clearly edited to suggest Steven's innocence. The defence suggests that various pieces of evidence which should demonstrate his guilt may have been planted. From the evidence and facts presented in the series it seems unlikely that any jury could have found him guilty beyond reasonable doubt. However, the trial lasted much longer than the series and therefore there must be swathes of information which has been omitted.

The first piece of information I found is that the prosecution had identified a motive for the crime, although it wasn't presented at the trial, as the information was unclear. Steven Avery had apparently greeted Teresa Halbach, the victim, on a previous visit wearing just a towel. She mentioned the incident to a colleague, advising them that she was 'creeped out' and wouldn't work with Avery again. When Avery arranged for her to come out to take photographs of the vehicle they were selling on the day of her murder, he gave his sister's name, the registered owner of the car. The suggestion is clearly that Avery lured Teresa to his home, she rejected Avery's advances and he attacked and killed her as a result.

No evidence of Teresa's presence was found inside Avery's trailer. Blood smears containing Avery's DNA had been found in her vehicle, but the defence clearly suggested that these had been planted. Avert's DNA (not blood this time) was also found on the bonnet latch in her car, a fact not presented in the series. However, this doesn't seem to add anything to the case.

A bullet fragment was found in Avery's garage (albeit after some time) which contained Teresa's DNA. What wasn't mentioned in the series was that the bullet was forensically tied to Steven's rifle. In addition, some of Halbach's belongings (including her camera) were found in the burn barrel outside Avery's trailer. Bone and tooth fragments were found in the burn pit outside Avery's home, but knowing that even cremators don't fully destroy bodies, I'm surprised that an outside fire could.

In recent days, Avery's ex-fiancĂ©e Jodi has commented that she believes he murdered Halbach and that he was violent towards her. Again, the series made little reference to Avery's previous violence. As such, the murder almost seemed to be out of character. If Avery really was a violent character and was generally known to be so, this could well have influenced the jury drawn from the population of a relatively small town.

In summary, given the above, I think Avery could have committed the murder, but I still don't think that there is sufficient evidence to convict him beyond reasonable doubt. There is talk that members of the jury were related to the Sherriff's department (possibly unavoidable in a small town) and that they were swayed by Brendan's withdrawn confession which implicated Avery, despite being told that they should not consider this as part of the evidence. It may simply be that the jury had to reach a unanimous verdict and more vocal members of the jury swayed the less vocal, perhaps simply because they were going round in circles and wanted the trial to be over so that they could return home.

Brendan Dassey

Brendan's case appeared much more clear cut on the documentary. There wasn't a shred of physical evidence and his confession was clearly as a result of coercion, if true there would have been blood evidence all over the bedroom in the trailer.

I struggle to see how the appeals have failed to be successful. His defence, Len Kachinsky, acted despicably, at no point did he seem to be acting in the interests of his client and I'm surprised he's not been struck off. Similarly, scenes of the investigator, Michael O'Kelly, coaching Brendan to draw pictures which supported the statement which he had just denied were incredible.
I certainly would have been unable to find Dassey guilty beyond reasonable doubt despite his confession, and I struggle to see how anyone else could. There doesn't seem to be any additional evidence coming to light since the series was shown to explain how this happened.

The alternative

The key question is probably, if Avery and Dassey didn't murder Halbach, then who did?
The programme makers seemed to suggest Halbach's family or her ex-boyfriend should have been investigated more thoroughly, Avery himself suggests that it could have been his brothers. The less palatable suggestion is that the Sherriff's department may be to blame. Much as I'm sure there was a degree of planting of evidence (the RAV4 key being the most obvious example), I'm reluctant to consider that the police would intentionally kill a member of the general public, just to frame Avery. As Ken Kratz admitted (ill advisedly), if they wanted to get rid of Avery, it would have been easier to kill him than frame him. Equally, if there was to be blood on their hands, surely they would target Avery rather than someone else.

It seems unlikely that anyone outside the family (with the exception of the police, who if my recollection is correct made Avery's family leave the site whilst they conducted their searches) could plant the RAV4 on the site, plus Halbach's remains in the burn pit and burn barrel without a member of the family seeing anything. This suggests that unless the police really had taken the most drastic steps to eliminate Avery, the most likely culprits are Avery or a member of his family.

I doubt we'll ever really know the true story behind what happened to Teresa Halbach, but with the amount of attention which the Netflix series is drawing, I don't think it's going to go quiet any time soon.

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