This article was originally published in Banter M, our digital mag for members.
While roughly halfway through the Netflix documentary series sensation ‘Making a Murderer’, it dawned on me that I was not watching an intellectually honest work of objective film making. I was in fact watching an extremely well-crafted, but deeply misleading piece of propaganda that Netflix should never have put its name to. Had this been a written piece of journalism submitted to the The Daily Banter, I would have rejected it out of hand due to its extraordinary intellectual sloppiness and outright dishonesty.
The documentary features Steven Avery, a man once wrongfully convicted of a violent rape that he did not commit, who is then accused of sexually assaulting and murdering Wisconsin photographer Teresa Halbach upon his release 18 years later. Avery is relentlessly presented by the documentary makers as a simple but decent man who fell victim to a giant police conspiracy orchestrated to destroy his life and pay him back for the embarrassment he caused the sheriff’s department and district attorney of Manitowoc County.
While there is a good deal of evidence that points to a serious lack of professionalism on the part of the sheriff’s department and perhaps a plausible theory that they planted evidence, Steven Avery is almost certainly guilty of sexually assaulting and murdering Teresa Halbach in collusion with his nephew, Brendan Dassey.
There are too many details presented in the documentary to go over at great length, but some simple facts demolish Avery’s defense and the astonishingly one sided argument presented by the documentary. Avery’s defense essentially consisted of circumstantial evidence that may or may not have indicated one or several members of the sheriff’s department planting Teresa Halbach’s car key with Avery’s blood on it in his bedroom, and may or may not have indicated improper interrogation techniques used to attain Dassey’s confession. While there are valid points raised by the defense indicating systemic flaws in the justice system and a serious lack of oversight, the rest of the evidence — not presented in the documentary — clearly shows no one else could have killed Halbach other than Avery and his nephew.
Avery’s lawyers and the documentary team used the sheriff’s department’s apparent hatred for Avery and the fact that he was suing them for $36 million as the reason why they attempted to frame him — omitting the fact that before Avery’s original arrest for the attempted murder and rape of Penny Beerntsen, Avery was a known to the police because of previous accusations of violent rape, and his notoriously violent temper towards his own family and animals. During a bail hearing for Avery, prosecutors also stated that Avery had drawn up diagrams while in prison for “a torture chamber to kill women” — character flaws the documentary makers did not see fit to include in their portrayal of him.
The evidence presented in the documentary breezes past his previous wrong doings, offering only his family’s testimony as evidence that he was essentially harmless. It is clear that Avery was not guilty of assaulting Beerntsen, but the sheriff’s department had Avery on their radar for very good reason, as later evidence conclusively proved.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Netflix documentary was the evidence presented in regards to Avery’s relationship with Teresa Halbach. If using only the documentary as evidence, one would get the impression Avery barely knew her and had next to no contact with her before she disappeared. While shamefully attempting to point the finger at ex boyfriends and other family members, the documentary neglected to reveal the fact that Avery knew Halbach and had been harassing her. Dustin Rowles at Pajiba noted in an excellent analysis of the series the following omissions:
— 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’s 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 moved 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.
Dassey’s statement, which as Rowles points out, was not discussed in any great detail in the documentary, was highly revealing and damning. It also shows the police handled it professionally and responsibly, and if read in full, cannot be dismissed blithely as coerced storytelling.
Dassey told the police the following story:
He went to go pick up some stuff around the yard then after that we, he asked me to come in the house cuz he wanted to show me somethin’. And he showed me that she was laying on the bed, her hands were roped up to the bed and that her legs were cuffed. And then he told me to have sex with her and so I did because I thought I was not gonna get away from ’em cuz he was too strong, so I did what he said and then after that, he untied her and uncuffed her and then he brought her outside and before he went outside, he told me to grab her clothes and her shoes. So we went into the garage and before she went out, when before he took her outside, he had tied up her hands and feet and then was in the garage and he stabbed her and then he told me to. And, after that he wanted to make sure she was dead or somethin’ so he shot her five times and while he was doing that I wasn’t looking because I can’t watch that stuff. So I was standing by the big door in the garage and then after that, he took her outside and we put her on the fire and we used her clothes to clean up the, some of the blood. And, when we put her in the fire, and her clothes, we were standing right by the garage, to wait for it to get down so we threw some of that stuff on it after it went down.
To make this up would require a great deal of imagination — an imagination that Dassey, who has an IQ of 69, clearly is not in possession of. Dassey is barely capable of stringing coherent sentences together, let alone reinventing the plot from a psychological thriller novel that he clearly had not read. Dassey also revealed to his mother that he told police that Avery had sexually assaulted him and his brothers — another fact the documentary conveniently omitted.
The filmmakers used a variety of manipulative techniques to elicit sympathy for Avery and his nephew, so many in fact, that it would require another 10 part mini-series to uncover them all. One of the most egregious, and frankly childish techniques used were the dark mutterings of family members convinced the system was “out to get them”. This was as pervasive theme throughout the series, yet the accusations were not substantiated with any meaningful evidence. The Averys and Dasseys are clearly not a bright bunch, and while their collective trauma may deserve a degree of sympathy, their opinions and evidence counts for little. While it is sad they have lost members of their family to the criminal justice system, their emotional pain has nothing to do with the evidence.
The facts remain that Steven Avery was the last person to see Teresa Halbach alive, was known to be harassing her, had his DNA on various parts of the crime scene — including the bullets used to kill her — and had a history of violence towards women. His former fiancee Jodi Stachowski has now come forward and told the media that Avery was violent towards her and is certain of his guilt — facts that severely undermine the defense’s story.
And finally, Brendan Dassey confessed to the murder — evidence that should speak for itself, but doesn’t because the filmmakers apparently saw a better story without it.
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