Did the Makers of 'Making a Murderer' Leave Out Evidence Against Steven Avery?
From start to finish, Netflix’s "Making a Murderer" is a riveting watch, a true-crime docuseries that has turned us into a nation of amateur sleuths. The series has all the key ingredients that keep you from turning away: unexpected twists and turns, slow reveals, a possible conspiracy, and an irresistible appeal to our deepest sense of empathy and justice. Since it first became streamable on December 8 (in a stroke of genius, Netflix recognized there’s no season like the holiday season for offering binge-worthy fare), it’s become a topic of widespread discussion, with everyone from Reddit regulars to celebrities weighing in. Essentially, this is the finest example of can’t-miss TV we’ve seen in a while.
In case you haven’t yet watched the series, here’s a quick primer (warning: spoilers abound).
Steven Avery was sent to jail in 1985 for a rape he didn’t commit. After spending 18 years behind bars, he was exonerated thanks to DNA evidence. What becomes immediately clear about his conviction is that the police and other officials in Manitowoc, Wisc., the small town where Avery and his family have long lived on the margins, were at best careless in their investigation and at worst guilty of suppressing exculpatory evidence. Upon his release, Avery filed a $36 million lawsuit against the county. Even as town officials were being deposed in the case, Avery was charged with a new crime—the grisly murder of 25-year-old Teresa Halbach.
"Making a Murderer" is a 10-part series shot over 10 years, so there’s no way I can distill everything that happens. Suffice it to say that filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos masterfully build a case suggesting Avery is again being railroaded by a system that disenfranchises the poor and mentally impaired for reasons both financial and political. Police misconduct and a system of criminal injustice star right alongside the film’s human subjects. Like The Thin Blue Line or Paradise Lost, "Making a Murderer" goes beyond merely documenting to reveal something more.
What I can tell you, though, is that I was incensed when the series ended. Like the more than 270,000 people who have signed a petition to have Avery exonerated, I was pretty solidly convinced of Avery’s innocence. But as I’ve read more—particularly Dustin Rowles' recent article for Pajiba on what the filmmakers left out—I’ve had to remember that even the most earnest and well-meaning artists have a point of view, and that leaves us with an incomplete picture.
Here are some of the key points Rowles uncovered that weren’t included in the documentary, though they were presented at trial. This may not necessarily sway your opinion (obviously, it likely had an impact on the jury) and it doesn’t erase questions about official misconduct in the case, but it does make Steven Avery’s innocence less absolute. I still have deep concerns about how this case was handled, the ethics of trying mentally challenged people for crimes, the way the confessions were obtained, the conflict of interest among multiple officials who overstepped the rules and took part in both cases, sleazy sexting prosecutors, and so much else. But what follows is information worth knowing while you consider every aspect of the case.
To quote Rowles:
- 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....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. (This is mentioned in the documentary.)
- 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'd 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 move 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.
In an update to his piece, Rowles adds more evidence to the fire, so to speak. He points out that Angenette Levy, one of the reporters we see throughout the film in the press room, noted that, “Teresa's camera and palm pilot were found in Avery's burn barrel.” This fact goes unmentioned in the film. He also links to the transcript of a conversation between Avery’s teen nephew and alleged co-conspirator, Brendan Dassey, who says Avery molested him several times before the crime took place. Obviously, this doesn’t connect Avery to the murder, but it doesn’t help in terms of his character, either.
None of this is airtight proof of anything. If Steven Avery gets a new trial—though he doesn’t have much recourse left at this point—here’s hoping justice is done. The reason this case has created so much impassioned outcry is because, in a world full of chaos, it feels like there’s a rare chance to right a wrong. Here’s hoping that if that should happen, the filmmakers, who have been steadfast in their commitment to what they did and didn’t include, will be there to shoot another documentary. Surely, it'll be as fascinating and infuriating as the series that launched it all.