Making a Murderer is a new true crime documentary from Netflix. It is not a stretch to believe that Netflix picked it up based on the success of HBO’s The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, but it isn’t quite in the same league as that instant classic. (I mean, how often does a documentary catch someone effectively confessing to murder? The Jinx and The Thin Blue Line are the the only examples I can think of.)
The person at the center of Making a Murderer is Steven Avery, a rural Wisconsin man whose family owned a scrap yard in the farming community of Manitowoc. In 1985 Avery was accused assaulting his cousin in what sounded like family squabble gone bad, and later of sexually assaulting a local woman he did not know. Avery was convicted of both attacks, and had served 18 years when the Innocence Project got the evidence in his case tested for DNA and it was revealed someone else had committed the sexual assault.
This part of the story is interesting enough. That police and prosecutors in Manitowoc County played fast and loose with the investigation, possibly because of the bad blood Avery had had with his cousin (who was married to a sheriff’s deputy), is indisputable. Avery’s exoneration on the rape charges led to legislative reforms and Avery filing a lawsuit against Manitowoc County for $36 million.
Here’s where the story takes a most unexpected turn. Two years later, on the eve of passage of a legislative bill named for Avery, a photographer for Auto Trader Magazine named Teresa Halbach disappeared. Her last customer on the day she vanished was Steven Avery. A few days later civilian searchers found Halbach’s SUV in the Avery scrap yard, covered with debris. Steven Avery was arrested again, this time for murder.
Over the next few months the police find a pile of evidence against Avery, including his blood being found in the SUV, Halbach’s car key found in Avery’s bedroom, and fragments of Halbach’s bones found in the remains of fires on Avery’s property. Five months later Avery’s nephew was also arrested, on the grounds that he had confessed to participating in the murder.
Both Avery and the nephew were convicted of murder, and sentenced to life in prison. But did they do it?
No matter how you look at it the circumstances here are bizarre, nearly impossible to believe. Why would a man newly exonerated of the only serious violent crime he’d ever been accused of and on the verge of receiving an enormous payout from the government commit a murder, and leave so much evidence on his own property to boot? Even with Avery accused of murder the county settled his lawsuit for hundreds of thousands; obviously it would have been much more if Avery hadn’t been arrested. The other possibility the documentary explores is that the Manitowoc County sheriff department worked with prosecutors to frame Avery in order to avoid a huge wrongful conviction payout. Of course that would be monstrous, because it would mean the authorities killed an innocent woman. (There are two other possibilities only briefly touched on — that someone else killed Halbach and tried to cover it up by framing Avery, or that some other member of Avery’s family committed the crime. And there’s always the possibility that Avery did it and the police framed him to make a conviction easier.)
Making a Murderer is ten hours long, so it has plenty of time to cover the details of the case. Especially interesting is the way the nephew was treated by his court appointed defense attorney, though you have to wait until the last episode before the most puzzling aspects of this are finally discussed. There are no definitive answers, and like Serial there could be further legal developments. I came out of the series better informed, if not greatly reassured.