Casefiles In The News

The Steven Avery Case: Beyond Reasonable Doubt

In December 2015 Netflix released their emotive ten-part documentary film Making A Murderer following the case of Steven Avery and in final episodes his 16-year-old nephew Brendan Dassey. This is a case which has sparked widespread debate and controversy. Complex, emotional and disturbing, it has the nation questioning the fairness and reliability of the American Criminal Justice System.

Steven Avery was wrongly convicted of rape in 1985 in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, spending 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. When he was finally exonerated through new developments in DNA testing and released in September 2003, the Netflix film crew were ready and waiting.

What followed was his fight to hold officials within Manitowoc County responsible for their actions in having him incarcerated and leaving him there.

Making A Murderer is a documentary-film which intended to chart one man’s release from a wrongful conviction and his ultimate search for the truth.

However, the story of Steven Avery quickly turned on its head when he is charged with the murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach and after a tense trial is convicted of first degree murder.

This is documentary footage filmed over ten years that has been edited, remodelled and presented in such a way to ensure the message of the filmmakers has come across. A message that Steven Avery is not only innocent; but that he has been framed for a second time by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department.

If indeed this man is innocent, the fact he has once again been jailed for a crime he did not commit is a horrifying and quite frankly terrifying example of criminal justice failure.

The Steven Avery case has divided families. The relatives of Steven Avery himself have separated, with some clearly believing him innocent and some guilty. For the family of Teresa Halbach, who wholeheartedly believe Steven Avery is guilty, this must be an unbearable situation. It is bad enough to have your loved one taken from you and murdered but for it be a case wrapped up in so much controversy, outcry and potential untruths, the process must be so much harder.

In 2003 Steven Avery had been released from prison, cleared of the rape conviction which had held him there for 18 years. DNA evidence confirmed another man, Gregory Allen, was responsible for the assault. Gregory Allen, it turned out, was a known suspect from the beginning, and he was a suspect the police ignored, leaving Steven Avery to pay the price.

With no action taken internally against those responsible, Steven Avery began to file a civil lawsuit against Manitowoc County, the sheriff at the time of his arrest and the former district attorney. Just weeks after their depositions, on 31st October 2005, Teresa Halbach, a 25-year-old photographer, went missing after she visited Avery at his home to photograph his sister’s car for Auto Trader Magazine. Her car was found inside the Avery Salvage Yard prompting repeated searches of Steven Avery’s home and his surrounding property. At the bottom of a fire pit outside Steven Avery’s trailer, the burnt remains of a young woman were found, soon identified as Teresa Halbach.

With a conflict of interest present, the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department were advised not to be involved with the investigation, instead handing it over to the neighboring Calumet County. In a second round of searches the key to Teresa Halbach’s vehicle was found in Steven Avery’s bedroom. Crucially the key had not been found in previous searches and it was officers of Manitowoc County who did find it, officers who were not supposed to be searching. The evidence against Steven Avery began to mount.

On November 11th 2005, Steven Avery was charged with murder. Maintaining his innocence, he claimed Manitowoc County were trying to frame him to avoid the pending civil law suit he had taken out against them. In a bizarre and unexpected twist, Steven Avery’s nephew, 16-year-old Brendan Dassey became involved after being interviewed a number of times by investigating officers. In these taped interviews he gave a full and apparent detailed confession that Steven Avery did kill Teresa Halbach and he helped him.

Brendan Dassey was charged with being a party to first-degree intentional homicide on March 2nd 2006. Brendan Dassey was 16 years old at the time of these interviews, with a low IQ and a clear lack of understanding of the consequences to his statements, there is a huge amount of speculation over his confession. Taped interviews suggest coercion by the police officers who used leading questions and continued to push Brendan Dassey for the answers they wanted.

Brendan’s story, as it is presented in the documentary, is widely inconsistent. Changing constantly, he switches between he was there at the time of the murder and Steven Avery made him help, to he wasn’t there and he was playing PlayStation at his own home. No DNA or blood evidence was found in the bedroom or garage of Steven Avery where Brendan Dassey claims the murder took place. After a complex trial, Steven Avery was found guilty of murder on March 18th 2007. On June 1st 2007 he was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole. In the trial of Brendan Dassey, he too was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison but with the possibility of parole.

Since 2007 both Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey have been fighting to clear their names and prove their innocence.  On August 12th 2016 news broke that Brendan Dassey’s conviction had been overturned and if no charges are refiled against him in the next 90 days he will walk free.

This news has been widely welcomed by the many who felt strongly that Brendan Dassey was a victim in this investigation and should never have been convicted.  Steven Avery is reportedly delighted that his nephews conviction has been overturned and is continuing to push forward with his own appeal case.

Proof Beyond A Reasonable Doubt

Can it really be said that Steven Avery had a fair trial? Due to the wide publicity of the case, the decision was made for the jury to be selected from neighboring Calumet County. Still very much within the state of Wisconsin, clearly those of Calumet County have read the same news reports and heard the same gossip as those in Manitowoc County.

Out of the 130 potential jurors who filled in questionnaires for jury selection, 129 of them confirmed they knew about the case from pre-trial publicity and as a result thought Steven Avery was ‘probably guilty’.  It was this pool of people who the final 12 jurors who sat on the Steven Avery trial were selected.

Furthermore, a juror who spent the first day in deliberations before he was dismissed due to a family emergency has come forward to say “After the trial, I found out…[one juror] was the father of a Manitowoc County Sheriff’s deputy…another juror, his wife works for the Manitowoc County Clerk’s Office.” Not only did this jury pool have substantial knowledge of the case before the trial started, it appears there may have been a clear conflict of interest with some jurors.

In all criminal trials a defendant is to be presumed innocent before any evidence is presented. It is the job of the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this defendant is guilty. From the footage we have seen in of this case, it is questionable that this is a man who was presumed innocent by all jury members before any evidence was heard.

Beyond a reasonable doubt means that the State have proven all aspects of the crime including that the defendant was the person who carried out that crime. In a criminal case there are always two sides, two presentations of events and two explanations for what happened. The reason the trial is taking place at all is because the truth is not known 100% and someone, somewhere in among the criminal activity or the criminal investigation, is not telling the truth.

Beyond a reasonable doubt does not mean beyond all possible doubt as that is rarely achievable in any series of events. It is beyond a fair, reasonable doubt that may be had by a considered and balanced individual based on the evidence presented. To give a guilty verdict is to confirm there is no reasonable doubt present about any aspect of the crime or that the defendant was responsible. If there is reasonable doubt a guilty verdict cannot be given.

“All due respect to counsel, the state is supposed to start every criminal trial swimming upstream. And the strong current against which the state is supposed to be swimming is the presumption of innocence.” – Dean Strang, Defense Counsel for Steven Avery

In a jury trial, it is the responsibility of each individual juror to weigh up the evidence presented to them and come to their own conclusion based on this evidence.

Have the prosecution convinced me beyond any reasonable doubt on all aspects of this crime that the defendant is guilty? In the Steven Avery case, his defence attorney, Jerry Buting, has openly raised doubts about whether the jury were influenced, either from within the actual jury pool or from an outside source. While he will not name or confirm any outside sources, the suggestion is that this may have been a police officer from the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department who have been at the center of this case.

The producers of Making A Murderer, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, appeared on the Today show in early January 2016, stating they had been contacted by a juror who sat on the case.

This juror claims the jury were pushed to vote guilty after feeling ‘threatened for their personal safety‘ and Steven Avery should have a new trial. There is no indication of where this threat came from, however these are clear suggestions of jury tampering, a very serious offence.

From the trial recordings, the behind the scenes look and listen with the defence attorneys and the family interviews highlighted in Making A Murderer, it appeared there was clear reasonable doubt over more than one aspect of this case. The involvement of the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department in the searches of Steven Avery’s property for example, officers who had merely weeks earlier been depositioned in a civil law suit taken out against them by the very suspect they were now searching the property of.

It was those very officers who found the car key in Steven Avery’s bedroom despite a number of previous searches finding no such key. The blood evidence inside Teresa Halbach’s vehicle has also been the subject of debate. A vial of Steven Avery’s blood, kept in evidence from his previous conviction in the Manitowoc County clerk’s office, was found to have been tampered with, suggesting this evidence had been planted. Yet the jury returned a guilty verdict to the horror of the watching nation.

The number of coincidences in the Steven Avery case are astounding. While some coincidences are acceptable, the sheer number in this case are more than suspicious.

“If we wanted to eliminate Steve, it would’ve been a whole lot easier to eliminate Steve than to frame Steve…or if we wanted him killed, it would be much easier just to kill him.” Manitowoc County Sheriff Ken Petersen

There are so many outstanding questions that have just not been answered, you can see why over 200’000 people in America have signed a petition for the release of Steven Avery, believing that once again he has been wrongly convicted of a terrible crime.

Steven Avery’s defence team, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, were not allowed to bring into evidence suggestions of who else may be responsible for the murder. This is of course the obvious question if you have doubts regarding his guilt. You are left asking all the way through each 1-hour episode of Making A Murderer, becoming rather suspicious of the various people who take the stand.  As time has passed there have been more reports of inaccuracies and inconsistencies in the evidence in this case, raising further questions about the guilt of Steven Avery.

The filmmakers did seem to ensure viewers were not left with the conclusion that the police had killed Teresa Halbach to frame Steven Avery, but if Steven Avery did not kill Teresa Halbach, then who did?

Did the producers manipulate viewers into believing Steven Avery is innocent by not showing all the evidence against him? There have been a number of news reports since the programme aired highlighting further evidence against Steven Avery and claiming that some jury members, or at least those who have spoken to the media, are comfortable with their decision and still feel it was the right one.

Bearing in mind this is a jury of 12 individuals who did not sit through ten hours of edited film footage for television, they sat through the actual trial and listened to all the evidence presented. In a number of reports published since the documentary aired, there have been points highlighted about Steven Avery, not shown in the documentary, that many feel point to his guilt.

  • Steven Avery allegedly contacted Auto Trader Magazine many times in the months leading to Teresa’s disappearance, specifically asking for her.
  • Teresa Halbach apparently felt uncomfortable around Steven Avery after he had answered the door to her on a previous visit, wearing just a towel.
  • On the day she went missing, Steven Avery had called her mobile phone numerous times using a code to hide his number and therefore his identity.
  • The bullet found in the garage with Teresa Halbach’s DNA came from a gun that always hung above Steven Avery’s bed.
  • The shackles that Brendan Dassey described in his statement matched the ones Steven Avery had purchased weeks before Teresa Halbach’s murder.

These are all points which were apparently included in his trial but not shown or highlighted in the documentary.  Furthermore, now that many of the official documents and transcripts have been released, there has been an influx of examinations of the case from various angles, many of whom have come to the conclusion that Steven Avery is guilty.

The Steven Avery case also extends to his nephew, Brendan Dassey. His trial and conviction has somewhat fallen into the background, however this is a young lad who also claims his innocence. Regardless of what editing was carried out by the production team, this was a 16-year-old who was not fairly represented and his confession is more than questionable.  The overturning of his conviction is at least one step in the right direction in trying to untangle what has become a very complex criminal case.

The Steven Avery case is one that is far from over with a man behind bars who is determined to prove his innocence. Reports indicate his case has now been taken on by the Midwest Innocence Project and a Chicago Law Firm who are currently working on his appeal due to be submitted at the end of August 2016.

The Law Firm of Kathleen T. Zellner and Associates, P.C. is pleased to announce that it will be assuming the full and complete representation of Steven Avery in all of his pending criminal matters. Ms. Zellner’s firm will be assisted by local Wisconsin counsel Tricia Bushnell. Ms. Bushnell is the Legal Director of the Midwest Innocence Project. The Zellner Law Firm is looking forward to adding Mr. Avery to its long list of wrongful conviction exonerations.

Making a Murderer is a documentary series that has been a resounding success for Netflix, turning a true crime case into reality TV with viewers tuning in to watch as the case unfolds. A second series is now understood to be in production, once again following Steven Avery but this time through is appeal process against a murder charge.

The Steven Avery case could potentially be the biggest miscarriage of justice seen in American history with an innocent man convicted and imprisoned twice for crimes he did not commit.  What is frightening is if that is the case, this is a man who has been targeted and framed by his local police department.

This is a complex case that isn’t just going to go away and it is a case that raises some serious questions for the Criminal Justice System. Confidence in justice has been shaken and despite the eventual outcome of appeals for Steven Avery and the future now for Brendan Dassey, it is a confidence that is unlikely to return.

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2 Comments

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  • I think this case is just awful, I mean how could they convict him on such shakey evidence?! It’s pretty obvious the police planted that key in his bedroom and what I don’t understand is how the police have got away with it. If Steve Avery didn’t have a lawsuit out against that police force he never would have been implicated in this murder. Now he is stuck in a cell trying to prove his innocence again. What has this country come to?

  • Hi Barbara, I agree the evidence against Steven Avery is questionable. There are too many issues for me to be confident regarding his conviction. Teresa Halbach’s car key being one of the main ones. If it had been found in those first searches and by officers not part of Manitowoc County I would be less suspicious. It is deeply worrying that this man could indeed be innocent of this horrific murder and has, once again, been convicted of a crime he did not commit. Furthermore, we have the case of his nephew Brendan Dassey wrapped up in there too which complicates things even further. I will be very interested to see how this case progresses, especially now after Brendan Dassey’s conviction has been overturned.

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