Warning: This article contains spoilers. If you are planning to watch the Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” you might not want to read this article.
Remember this time last year when millions of people were talking about “Serial”? Well, many still are, as the second season of the true crime documentary podcast series—this time focusing on the case of soldier-turned-Taliban prisoner, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl—premiered on Dec. 10. As popular as the “Serial” series is, however, buzz regarding the 10-part Netflix crime documentary series “Making a Murderer” appears to have eclipsed it.
Just like the first season of “Serial” investigated whether Baltimore high school student Adnan Syed killed his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in 1999—or whether he was wrongfully convicted—“Making a Murderer” looks into the case of Wisconsin man Steven Avery, who was accused of killing an Auto Trader Magazine photographer named Teresa Halbach who visited his property to take some photos in 2005.
This time, however, there are a couple of added wrinkles. First, before being accused of killing Halbach, Avery served 18 years in prison for a sexual assault he didn’t commit. Also, Avery’s intellectually disabled, 16-year-old (at the time) nephew Brendan Dassey was supposedly involved in the crime as well.
Netflix launched “Making a Murderer” a week before Christmas, leading millions to binge watch the series over the holidays. Many have since taken to social media and office water coolers to discuss their theories about the case and to turn others on to the series.
The central question on most people’s minds is whether or not Avery and Dassey are, in fact (as the jury decided), guilty of the crime. Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos say the purpose of the film was to gauge how well the American justice system is functioning. They viewed Steven Avery’s story as an ideal way to do that.
The filmmakers spent a decade making the series, which begins shortly after Avery was released from prison in 2003. Avery had served 18 years for the violent rape of a woman in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, and was eventually exonerated by DNA analysis that didn’t exist when he was convicted. There is significant evidence to suggest that the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Office had tunnel vision concerning Avery in that case, and Avery had already filed a $36 million lawsuit against the county and various local officials when he was arrested for Halbach’s murder in 2005.
A prevailing theory raised repeatedly in the film is that some of the same members of law enforcement who were involved in Avery’s first case were complicit in framing him in the second case, and then-state prosecutor Ken Kratz was all too eager to prosecute Avery because of the embarrassment that his lawsuit had caused the state.
Of course, the fact that the defense team and the family members of Avery and Dassey account for a majority of the screen time only bolsters the idea that there was a conspiracy in the case, and Kratz has alluded to as much in interviews about the series. But Kratz, despite his accusations of bias on the part of Ricciardi and Demos, also turned down an opportunity to appear in the film, accusing the filmmakers of being partial to the defense. The fact that a judge’s order kept members of the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office from being interviewed for the film, as well, only muddies the waters.
There are other items to ponder, too, including:
The fact that Kratz would be forced to resign a few years after the case due to sexually harassing (including sending sexually suggestive text messages to) a domestic abuse victim—coupled with his prescription drug addiction and his (in this writer’s opinion) specious arguments and overall suspicious vibe in the film—adds (in my mind) an element of reasonable doubt to his case against Avery. With all of that said, could Avery also be guilty? Yes.
It is pretty much immediately clear that Avery’s 16-year-old, developmentally disabled nephew Brendan Dassey does not understand how police interrogations work. Virtually all of the knowledge that he seemingly has about the crime appears to come from either information spoon fed by police, details he’s made up completely on his own or, as he later testifies in court, stuff he read in a book, “Kiss the Girls.” He is repeatedly told not to lie and is under the distinct impression that telling investigators what they want to hear—despite the fact that it is not actually true—will allow him to go home. False confessions do happen, and while there is always a chance that Dassey had some role in the crime, it seems far more likely that he did not.
So, if law enforcement and the prosecution got it wrong in this case, who is guilty of killing Teresa Halbach? The Internet is filled with theories regarding other suspects, none of whom were investigated as thoroughly as Avery—if they were even investigated at all. One person of interest who sticks out to many (myself included) is Halbach’s ex-boyfriend, Ryan Hillegas. Hillegas either knew or guessed Halbach’s cellphone password and said he “and some people” were able to log into her data. He may have been responsible for deleting (possibly incriminating) voicemails that had been left on her phone, and he appeared to have scratches on his hand during the portion of the film where he and others are part of Halbach’s search party. There is also some speculation that he could have had some involvement in moving Halbach’s vehicle onto the Avery property, and he may have even planted the key for the vehicle that was found in Avery’s house. With that said, will Hillegas or anyone else likely be investigated in this case? No.
A juror in the case has told the filmmakers that he or she believes Steven Avery was framed. The juror says there was behind-the-scenes vote-trading going on during the trial and that his or her guilty vote came under duress—because if the juror had held out for a mistrial, he or she would likely have been identified and would have feared for his or her safety.
The presumption of guilt
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from “Making a Murderer” is the danger associated with merely being accused of committing a crime. If Avery hadn’t received a settlement from his wrongful conviction, he wouldn’t have been able to afford the quality lawyers he had in the second case—lawyers who were still unable to convince a jury of his innocence. Avery’s reputation was already ruined (despite being eventually exonerated) in the first case, and as Strang says in the last episode of the series, part of him hopes Avery is guilty because it’s too much to think about him going to prison again (and, this time, for the rest of his life) for something he didn’t do. Of course, most would agree that being murdered is worse than spending even your entire life in prison for a crime you didn’t commit, and the real outrage in this case should not be that Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey might be innocent, but rather that Teresa Halbach’s killer could still be walking free.
Teresa Halbach was 25 years old when she was murdered. Steven Avery was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Brendan Dassey was sentenced to life in prison with a chance of parole in 2048. He will be 59 years old.
The filmmakers are continuing to follow the case for possible future episodes. You can watch the first 10 episodes of “Making a Murderer” on Netflix. (If this article hasn’t spoiled it too much for you, that is.)
Former Chattanooga Pulse Editor Bill Colrus writes about (in no particular order) news, culture and media. You can find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter or connect with him at billcolrus.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.