Like millions of people who have watched the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer, I was left bemused and angered by the cases of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey.
The filming of this programme began back in 2003 when a Wisconsin man named Steven Avery had been exonerated as a result of DNA evidence after serving eighteen years in prison for rape. As the government offered him a paltry sum for his years served, he decided to sue the Manitowoc Country Police for their negligence – and by many people’s account, deliberate mishandling of evidence and witness statements. While this lawsuit was going on, Avery was accused of murdering Teresa Halbach, a 25-year old woman who had gone to Avery’s auto scrapyard to photograph a vehicle and had no other connection to Avery.
The same officials who were being sued by Avery were involved in investigating this murder case against him. To avert any appearance of conflict of interest, the state Attorney General assigned another county to work on the case, alongside Manitowoc County. The incriminating evidence against Avery was discovered by the officers from Manitowoc County, mostly under suspicious circumstances. For instance, finding Halbach’s car keys in Avery’s trailer days after other investigators found nothing. There were also blood stains with Avery’s DNA found in Halbach’s car, said to have come from a cut on Avery’s finger though there were no fingerprints or other evidence to link Avery to the car. The vial containing Avery’s DNA from his case back in 2003 was still in police lockup and had been discovered to have been tampered with – a discovery filmed in the process of making the Netflix documentary.
I won’t go on about the trial as it was covered in some nine one-hour episodes of the series. In the end, Avery was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Attempts to reverse this decision using the Appellate Court and the Supreme Court systems have failed. From watching this series, this appears to be a terrible injustice driven by the need of authorities to protect their own from accusations of prejudice and framing innocent persons.
There’s more. Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, was also arrested as an accomplice in this case. At the time of the murder, Dassey was sixteen, but with the reading ability of an eleven-year old. He was learning disabled and awkward and shy. He had been brought into this case as a possible witness by his fourteen-year-old cousin who claimed that Dassey had told her about seeing body parts on the Avery property. On the witness stand, the teary-eyed cousin admitted that she had lied about this. Manitowoc County police had managed to get a confession out of Dassey by telling this unintelligent boy that he could go home if he confessed. I only saw about 30 minutes of the four hours of the police interview with Dassey. Given that, two things struck me: one, young Dassey was there on his own, without parent or lawyer; and two, it was obvious that the police were feeding Dassey with their version of the story and getting him to agree. The first lawyer assigned to Dassey had already presumed his guilt and put Dassey through another bullying interview to get more details out of him. In time, this lawyer was fired from the case by the judge. Yet, this additional incriminating evidence was still used against Dassey during his trial.
The so-called confession from Dassey was so weak that it wasn’t considered admissible in Steven Avery’s trial. Yet, despite that and the lack of physical evidence, Dassey was still convicted to life in prison and won’t be eligible for parole until 2048.
Since then, experts in false confessions and groups, such as Innocent Project, have taken up Dassey’s case. As this young man, now in his late twenties, remains incarcerated, I can’t help but to think of other cases where false confessions were extracted from innocent young men. The notorious Central Park Five involved teenaged boys convicted of raping and brutally beating a woman in 1989. They were exonerated on DNA evidence and the confession of the true rapist in 2002.
Both the Avery and Dassey cases point to weaknesses in a complex legal system which have led to these apparent injustices. At a deeper level, these cases highlight prejudices against certain types of people – working class, learning disabled, young males. It also underscores the desire to incarcerate people, as if that is going to deter similar crimes or make our communities safer – studies have shown otherwise. By all appearances, Avery and Dassey are victims not just of a handful of dishonest police, but of a much larger social malaise.