Making a Murderer?

It should be news to no one that the criminal justice system is not perfect; likewise, wrongly convicted once doesn't mean innocent forever

By Jim Glennon  |   Jan 5, 2016

‘Making a Murderer’ Inspires Petitions Calling for Presidential Pardon for Steven Avery.

That was the headline on the NBC News website Monday afternoon.

As of this writing there are almost 200,000 people who have signed said petition. I think some of my relatives may be a few of them.

NBC News wrote that “’Making a Murderer’ portrays the case of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who served nearly 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. After suing the local police for wrongful conviction, Avery was accused and found guilty in 2007 of the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach, a crime for which he has also maintained his innocence. The Netflix series suggests that Avery may be the victim of a conspiracy.”

The word suggestion is a massive understatement.

The Big Deal

Before we go any further, full disclosure: I watched all ten episodes with my totally consumed wife. Took us about 2 ½ days. I dreamt about the damn thing.

It seems as the whole country is flocking to Netflix to find, sit, watch and opine about conspiracies, inadequacies and the evil doings of the criminal justice system.

I gotta admit, it’s a great cinematic endeavor. It rivets the viewer and holds interest for days. Referred to by Netflix as both a “Documentary” and a “web television series,” the show created and produced by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos is raking in the profits.

Most who cough up the cash to watch—including several tweeting and emotional celebrities—believe it’s a story of remarkable accuracy designed to lift the veil off of a criminal justice system laden with rampant incompetence and total corruption.

There is, however, another side to that opinion.

Teresa Halbach’s family who sat through both trials and attended all of the appeals sees the series differently. It is not entertainment to them. Their experiences and emotions haven’t been edited. And they, as did the juries, saw and heard all the evidence. A few days ago they released a statement that said they were “saddened to learn that individuals and corporations continue to create entertainment and to seek profit from our loss.”

What I know is that 99% of those who watch have a few things in common.

  1. They know nothing about the criminal justice system and its processes.
  2. They didn’t see all the evidence.
  3. They want to believe in complex conspiracies.
  4. They want simple answers to complex situations that include crimes and really evil and psychologically damaged human beings.
  5. Most have never met anyone like Steven Avery and don’t really understand that people like him exist.

But let’s examine this thing quickly.

I admit, I saw a lot of problems, at least based on what was presented in the faux documentary. I use the word ‘faux’ not to be glib, but there is no such thing as a true story. It’s impossible. And the bias of the producers was apparent throughout.

Still, I saw problems on the criminal justice side that made me cringe often. My wife cringed even more, and while she is incredibly smart, we both had to keep reminding ourselves that we were seeing what the producers wanted us to see.

First the problems, and this is going to anger some of my brothers and sisters involved in these cases, but I’ve done some research from the perspective of someone who was a trained and experienced sex crimes investigator, commander of investigations and the commander of a homicide task force.

The 1985 Rape Conviction

The investigation of the original rape case that wrongfully convicted Steven Avery was, well, terrible. At least from what I can find out about it.

The artist’s sketch of the suspect was suspect in itself. It does look, I have to admit, as though it was traced over the mug shot of Avery. The subsequent identifications were iffy at best.

Yes it was 1985 and real professional sex crimes investigation was in its infancy, but basic police work wasn’t. DNA wasn’t available but common sense was. Two things are always on the mind of investigators when charging someone.

The first is, we absolutely don’t want to put someone away who didn’t do it. Because it’s wrong. But, second, if you do, the real bad guy stays out there and will victimize others.

The witness was definitely influenced by the order of the sketch, pictures and live lineup. Avery was exonerated by DNA 18 years later and the victim apologized. And other women were victimized by the real rapist.

But no system is perfect. The mistakes could have been honest ones.

The Halbach Murder

Brutal and beyond tragic. Questions unanswered. Some evidence, or lack of evidence, didn’t make a whole lot of sense.  Some cops did have incentive to lie and plant evidence.

But, Avery still did it.

However, some mistakes were just plain dumb. Here are a few:

  • The prosecutors talked too much to the press. Way too much. I think they really liked the attention and the primary guy, Ken Kratz, was a politician with big ambitions. Those ambitions were cut short when it was revealed that he was sexually harassing domestic violence victims. You can’t get much lower than that. He claimed to have some prescription drug and sex addiction issues so, blah, blah, blah …
  • Kratz made the primary investigators available to the press. Stupid.
  • Manitowoc sheriff’s personnel shouldn’t have been involved, especially after a couple of sheriffs and Kratz said they weren’t going to be. If you publicly say it, do it!
  • Don’t release crime scenes until you know you are done and for crying out loud keep a detailed log! That is absolute crime scene management 101.
  • Sealed evidence and evidence logs need be pristine! I was physically ill when I saw the defense attorney open up that Styrofoam container with the broken evidence seal that contained Avery’s blood vial. The vial itself had a hole in it! How can that happen?
  • The interview of the juvenile, sorry guys, may have been really good at times, and again, editing skews, but never give info to the suspect, make them give it to you (but again, I didn’t see all the interviews in their entirety).
  • Again, if you are not supposed to on scene searching, then don’t be!
  • Brendan Dassey’s original attorney was inept. He allowed the investigators to interview the 16-year-old at length after being retained, after Dassey was in custody and after his own investigator seemingly forced a confession. I’m not saying Dassey didn’t do it, but I’ve never ever seen anything like that in my 30-year career.

But, what wasn’t in the “documentary.”

  • Teresa Halbach had been to Avery’s trailer before and been “creeped out by him.” She told her employer she didn’t want to take photos of one of his vehicles ever again.
  • Avery asked for Teresa to come back, used his sister’s name to avoid using his, called Teresa’s phone twice the day of the murder and used the *67 feature to cover up his own number.
  • While Avery was in prison for the 1985 rape he “told another inmate of his intent to build a ‘torture chamber’ so he could rape, torture and kill young women when he was released.” Kratz told People Magazine that Avery “even drew a diagram.”
  • Avery learned the way to destroy a body was to burn it.
  • Avery didn’t accidentally set fire to a cat, he doused it with gasoline first.
  • He had a history of sexual violence towards female family members that included threats.
  • Avery owned handcuffs and other restraining devices and some were found in the fire pit.
  • Avery’s sweat was found in the Halbach’s car and his DNA was also found under the hood.
  • Dassey told his mother that he was touched sexually by Avery as were some of the other cousins.
  • The bullet found matched Avery’s gun.

There are other tidbits, but if all you know about the justice system is based on TV and movies and you want to believe this poor guy was railroaded by evil cops then there is nothing I can say to change your mind.

But let me address one more thing. The two cops who were accused the most were a lieutenant and a sergeant. The theory is they were going to lose their houses and pensions if Avery won the $36-million dollar lawsuit.

One serious problem with that.

Neither one was being sued. They weren’t in any trouble at all. And I really doubt they were under orders or decided to risk the rest of their lives in prison to save the county money.

Conclusion

Investigations are much more difficult in real life than they are on TV. Most are done professionally by hard-working officers. But cops can be the bad guys at times. No doubt (cops are people). Some are inept, others corrupt, and the system fails more than it should.

But bad guys exist, as does true evil. Just my opinion: Avery is both.

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Jim Glennon
Lt. Jim Glennon (ret.) is the owner and lead instructor for Calibre Press. He is a third-generation LEO, retired from the Lombard, Ill. PD after 29 years of service. Rising to the rank of lieutenant, he commanded both patrol and the Investigations Unit. In 1998, he was selected as the first Commander of Investigations for the newly formed DuPage County Major Crimes (Homicide) Task Force. He has a BA in Psychology, a Masters in Law Enforcement Justice Administration, is the author of the book Arresting Communication: Essential Interaction Skills for Law Enforcement.