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Netflix's Making a Murderer: the case of Steven Avery, explained

Steven Avery's mug shot.
Steven Avery's mug shot.

Warning: Spoilers for Netflix's Making a Murderer ahead.

Netflix's Making a Murderer tells a chilling story: Steven Avery of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, was sent to prison for 18 years for a crime he didn't commit, only to be released after a prolonged legal battle. But once he's finally let go, just a few years later he's thrown into prison again for a different crime that, the documentary argues, Avery also may not have committed.

In the first case, in 1985, Avery was accused of trying to rape and kill a woman named Penny Beerntsen, after she identified him as her attacker. DNA evidence later exonerated him. But there were several mistakes in the investigation. Most notably, police seemed to overlook Gregory Allen, a man who was deemed so dangerous that he was under constant surveillance — except on the day Beerntsen was attacked — and was later convicted of a sexual assault, for which he's still serving time.

Then in 2007, Avery was convicted of killing Teresa Halbach, a photographer who regularly took pictures at the Avery family's junkyard and was last reportedly seen alive by Avery. The prosecution, led by Calumet County District Attorney Ken Kratz, relied on several pieces of evidence for this second conviction: Halbach's SUV was found hidden on the Avery family's property, the SUV had Avery's blood in it, a bullet with Halbach's DNA was found in Avery's garage, and Halbach's spare SUV keys were found in Avery's trailer, among other clues.

To casual observers, it would seem like an open-and-shut case. But the 10-episode documentary series questions all these pieces of evidence, forcing the audience to rethink how valid even the proof we like to think is most reliable — DNA evidence — may not in fact be trustworthy. It also suggests, convincingly, that there was a grand conspiracy against Avery, positing that after his release in the 1985 case, Manitowoc County officials were so embarrassed by his exoneration, and felt so threatened by a lawsuit Avery filed against them, that they did everything in their power to frame an innocent man for a second crime.

But Making a Murderer relies on a lot of tropes that are all too typical of true crime documentaries, including leaving out some major pieces of evidence that would hinder its overall thesis that Avery is innocent. And it does this even though it might not need to: Even if Avery is guilty of the second crime, the criminal justice system clearly failed him — not just through his wrongful conviction in the first case, but through the shoddy process that led to his conviction in the second.

Here are the big points of the documentary, the evidence it left out, and why it ultimately might not matter whether or not it tells the full story of Avery's case.

Making a Murderer hinges a lot on the doubts surrounding DNA evidence

Steven Avery and his parents. Netflix

In Making a Murderer, Avery's case largely comes down to one piece of evidence: a blood vial. It's the central item used to discredit what is perhaps the most damning piece of evidence against Avery — his blood, found in Teresa Halbach's SUV.

The blood vial had been held as evidence by Manitowoc County officials since Avery's previous arrest in 1985. Avery's lawyers argue that this vial was used to plant the blood in Halbach's car in the 2007 case. The documentary's biggest moment comes when the lawyers show that the box containing the vial was cut open and, in a shocking reveal, that there was a puncture the size of a hypodermic needle in the vial's top — something the county lab says it didn't and wouldn't do.

Suddenly the conspiracy against Avery becomes believable to the audience. Maybe a sheriff's deputy really did sneak into the county lab, pull out some blood from the vial, and plant it in Halbach's SUV. And if that happened, what else is possible?

From that point, the documentary chips away at the other evidence in the case. Here are a few examples:

  1. Police claim they found a key to Halbach's SUV in Avery's home. But the key was only found after multiple searches, and contained only Avery's DNA, not Halbach's — even though Halbach would have used the key for years. Thus, Avery's defense argues that the key was planted, raising questions like: Why would Avery clean the key of any traces of Halbach's DNA but leave his own DNA on it? Why would Avery clean the key but leave it in his home? And why was the key conveniently found after multiple searches?
  2. Law enforcement officials say they found a bullet with Halbach's DNA on it in Avery's garage, arguing that it's evidence that Avery shot and killed Halbach in there. But if that's true, why couldn't police find any other sign of Halbach's DNA — not in any of the piles of junk in the garage or in the cracks of the garage floor that they literally busted open? Shooting someone to death is very messy. Are we to believe that Avery cleaned up his garage of any traces of Halbach's DNA but somehow forgot a bullet?
  3. Prosecutors present Halbach's bones as evidence, claiming that they were found in a fire pit right outside of Avery's home. But bones were also found around the Avery property, suggesting that at least some of the bones were moved. So why would Avery leave bones right outside his home after making efforts to move them around his own family's property?
  4. Tests found no signs of EDTA, an anticoagulant used to preserve the blood in Avery's vial, in the blood found in Halbach's SUV. The prosecution used this finding as proof that the blood found in Halbach's SUV was not the same as the blood found in Avery's vial. But a forensic expert testified for the defense that the test for EDTA is so faulty that a finding of no EDTA could also mean the test wasn't good enough.
  5. The prosecution built much of its initial case on the testimony of Brendan Dassey, Avery's nephew, who allegedly helped Avery kill Halbach. The prosecution announced Dassey's supposed confession in a big press conference, implying that Dassey had provided a highly detailed account of what happened. But the footage of the confession later suggested that investigators essentially pushed Dassey, who by his own admission is not very smart, into confessing by barraging him with leading questions. In fact, once Dassey lawyered up, he withdrew his confession, and the prosecution didn't use it in trial due to its questionable nature.

All the questions posed by this incident are made believable by the puncture in the old blood vial. If it's believable that police may have planted Avery's blood in Halbach's car, what else are they willing to do? Plant a key? A bullet? Bones? The documentary pushes on this kind of questioning to build reasonable doubt in the audience's mind, much like a good defense lawyer would for a jury.

But the documentary also manages to build up a parallel sense of distrust by showing that the Manitowoc County Sheriff's Office had a potential motive for framing Avery: the embarrassment and financial threat they faced after accusing him of a crime he didn't commit.

The show makes you distrust the Manitowoc County Sheriff's Office early on

Dean Strang, one of the attorneys who defends Steven Avery in Making a Murderer.
Dean Strang, one of the attorneys who defends Steven Avery in Making a Murderer.
Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/TNS via Getty Images

The beginning of the documentary doesn't focus on Avery's 2007 murder trial, instead looking back at the 1980s, when the Manitowoc County Sheriff's Office accused — and courts convicted — Avery of an attempted murder and rape that he didn't commit.

In that previous case, Avery was convicted in 1985 and then exonerated by DNA evidence 18 years later, in 2003. But there were signs that the Manitowoc County Sheriff's Office neglected evidence that could have freed Avery from prison earlier.

Particularly, sheriffs got a call in the mid-1990s from a detective in nearby Brown County, Wisconsin, who claimed to have a man in custody who said that Manitowoc County was holding someone for a crime this person had committed. It's never proven who the man in Brown County's custody was, or whether he had to do anything with Avery's case.

But since Avery was the only really high-profile case in Manitowoc County for years, the documentary and Avery's lawyers argue, quite convincingly, that the phone call was about Avery — and they maintain that if this development had been presented to a court earlier, Avery could have been freed from prison nearly 10 years before he was actually let go.

Building on this, the show begins to focus on a few Manitowoc County deputies who were involved in some way with the phone call: Andrew Colborn took the call, James Lenk was his supervisor, and Kenneth Peterson was the sheriff at the time. The show heavily suggests that these three effectively kept Avery in prison for nearly 10 years longer than he should have been by neglecting to investigate the phone call. And when Avery later sued Manitowoc County for his wrongful imprisonment, these three men were deposed.

As it turns out, these facts and figures become very important to Avery's murder trial in 2007. It would eventually be Lenk, for example, who found the key for Halbach's SUV in Avery's home. Lenk was also at the scene of the SUV when it was first found on the Avery family's property — a mysterious circumstance, since he never signed in to the scene but did sign out. And Lenk appeared to be at Avery's garage during a search before the bullet with Halbach's DNA was found.

Additionally, and damningly, Manitowoc County officials were supposed to be keeping their distance from Avery's 2007 investigation. Early on, the county and state had realized the conflict of interest that Manitowoc County's involvement presented since Avery was suing county officials for his wrongful imprisonment from 1985 to 2003.

Investigators handled this conflict of interest by relying more on police from other counties and requiring that officials from other counties supervise Manitowoc County deputies when they are involved in, for example, a search.

But that apparently didn't stop someone like Lenk — one of the county officials with the biggest potential for a conflict of interest — from taking part in some particularly important searches.

Making a Murderer uses all the doubt created by these facts to poke holes in the 2007 case against Avery. It never provides hard proof that Avery is innocent, but the conflict of interest and questionable forensic evidence cast what could be considered reasonable doubt.

The documentary achieves this in part by leaving out evidence that may suggest Avery was guilty

Steven Avery, the subject of Making a Murderer. Netflix

Documentaries present a narrative with a point of view. They aren't meant to present every fact or recite history — doing so would be impossible or impossibly boring. And that point of view is the reason that with every documentary, there are criticisms.

Last June, Netflix's documentary about the singer Nina Simone, What Happened, Miss Simone?, was criticized for letting her husband, a man who abused her, tell and shape parts of her story. Also last year, family members of Amy Winehouse took umbrage with the way they were portrayed in Amy. And if you look back to one of the most incendiary documentaries in recent memory, Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 was a pincushion for criticism on how it portrayed the Bush administration.

Making a Murderer isn't any different. It didn't present every single moment of footage from Avery's trial, every single quote from the people who were interviewed, or every single detail of the case. If it had, it would be tremendously boring and hundreds of hours long.

But Kratz, the main state prosecutor who argued the case against Avery, claims — along with the Manitowoc sheriff's department — that the documentary does more than just leave out extraneous details. He says it deliberately omitted key facts.

"They don’t even tell you 80 percent of the evidence that the jury saw. They purposely kept all of that evidence that I showed the jury that absolutely discounted this evidence-planting theory," Kratz told Maxim.

As Making a Murderer has gained popularity online, Kratz has been talking to publications like Maxim, People, and The Wrap to recount key facts he believes were purposely excluded from the docu-series:

Avery's animal cruelty was glossed over: Kratz explains that Making a Murderer downplayed the cat Avery set on fire, that Avery's treatment of the cat was more sinister and showed that Avery is capable of extreme violence. In the first episode of the series, Avery talks about goofing off, throwing the cat over a fire, and seeing it catch flame. Kratz paints a different picture, telling The Wrap that the incident was more sinister. "He soaked his cat in gasoline or oil, and put it on a fire to watch it suffer."

Kratz claimed that Avery's DNA was found under the hood of Halbach's car: The series, and Avery's guilt, hinges on the idea that police planted DNA evidence — his blood — to incriminate him. But Kratz explained to Maxim that Avery's DNA, via his sweat, was found on the hood of Halbach's car. He said:

Avery’s DNA (not blood) was on the victim’s hood latch (under her hood in her hidden SUV). The SUV was at the crime lab since [the day Halbach's car was found]…how did his DNA get under the hood if Avery never touched her car? Do the cops have a vial of Avery’s sweat to "plant" under the hood?

Kratz said Halbach's phone, camera, and PDA were found burned on Avery's property.

He also said that Halbach's tooth was found in the fire pit.

Kratz claimed that ballistics determined that the bullet found in the garage was fired by Avery's rifle: Kratz explains that there's no way the police could have planted the bullet, since the gun that fired it was in an evidence locker. The police would have had to get the gun out of evidence, fire the gun, plant the bullet on the day of the investigation, and return the gun to the locker. Kratz told The Wrap:

The bullet had to be fired BEFORE [officials searched Avery's property]—did the cops borrow his gun, fire a bullet, recover the bullet before planting the SUV, then hang on to the bullet for 4 months in case they need to plant it 4 months later???

Avery stalked Halbach at her work (Autotrader), according to Kratz.

Avery called Halbach three times on the day she went missing: Avery allegedly targeted Halbach the day she went missing and called her three times. "For two of those phone calls, phone records indicated he used the star-67 feature, which is dialed to hide a caller's identity," New York's Daily News reported.

The third call, Kratz claims, was an alibi call deliberately made after Avery allegedly abducted her.

Jodi Stachowski, Avery's ex-fiancée, said Avery was a "monster," abused her, and threatened to kill her. The documentary presented Stachowski as a strong supporter of Avery, but she told HLN that he was violent toward her. "He'd beat me all the time, punch me, throw me against the wall," Stachowski said. "I tried to leave, he smashed the window out of my car so I couldn't leave him."

Stachowski said she believed Avery was capable of killing Halbach, and that he did it. She said that she didn't want to be in Making a Murderer, and that Avery threatened her into saying good things about him in the documentary. "He called me and told me … that if I didn't say anything good and nice about him, I'd pay," Stachowski claimed.

While in prison, Avery allegedly told another inmate that he wanted to build a torture chamber.

There's also evidence left out of Making a Murderer that helps Avery's case, including, according to Avery attorney Dean Strang, signs the DNA evidence under the hood of Halbach's car came from contaminated gloves, and a forensic anthropologist's testimony that an open fire couldn't generate enough heat to burn a body in the way Halbach's bones were destroyed. (The AV Club detailed some of the missing pro-Avery evidence.)

Making a Murderer's creators respond to criticisms over missing evidence

Following the accusations, the documentary's creators responded to online criticisms in a tweetstorm on Wednesday, January 20. Here's what they said.

Why didn't Making a Murderer include the evidence found under the hood of Halbach's car?

Why is Stachowski now speaking out against the documentary? And is it true footage of her was used without her permission?

Why didn't the documentary include Halbach's alleged complaints about Avery prior to her death?

Making a Murderer's creators want people to focus on the systemic issues exposed by the documentary, not just the little details.

Should we believe prosecutor Kratz that Avery is guilty, and that Making a Murderer manipulates viewers by not disclosing all the evidence?

A jury box. Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

Kratz's claims would be a lot easier to believe if there weren't such glaring mistakes made in Avery's 1985 rape trial. Making a Murderer highlights the way law enforcement officials abused their power, ignored better judgment, and ended up costing Avery 18 years of his life. If those kind of mistakes and abuses of power are possible, planting DNA evidence doesn't seem out of the question.

Everything prosecutors and the Manitowoc Sheriff's Office say or do is now tainted.

Perhaps that's why Kratz has taken care to focus on details of Avery's 2007 case like sweat being harder to plant than blood — because there's a reason not to trust the law enforcement officials.

And when you go down that route, a lot of the evidence that Making a Murderer doesn't present could easily be refuted. Who's to say that things like teeth or a PDA couldn't be planted? Or that Avery didn't ever touch her car? Or that Avery, whom the series presents as having an IQ of 70, probably isn't worrying about making an alibi call? There's no evidence these countertheories are solid — but the evidence that Kratz cites isn't as conclusive as he believes. Especially not after how Avery's 1985 rape trial was handled.

Making a Murderer wanted to prove Avery's innocence but really succeeded in another way

Prisons are surprisingly important to plumbing improvements. Shutterstock

In taking on this project, creators Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi have skewed their series toward Avery being innocent. A lot of Making a Murderer's success is based in that — the documentary series has gotten national attention, and people have been moved to create various petitions asking for a retrial, a presidential pardon, and everything in between. And all true crime documentaries — as we saw last year with the hit podcast Serial — eventually hit the point where the story ends in the present.

Demos and Ricciardi recently told the Today show that since Making a Murderer was released on December 18, a juror who helped convict Avery of murder in 2007 came to them and told them he believed Avery was innocent and had been framed:

But a retrial or a pardon or hundreds of thousands of people who believe in Avery's innocence or any other real-world development in the case isn't the marker of how successful Demos and Ricciardi's series is. And if Avery is innocent, there is still the question of who actually killed Halbach and whether the person is still out there.

Because of the faulty handling of Avery's 1985 rape trial, everything the Manitowoc sheriff's department says is now questionable. Even if Avery did murder Halbach and none of the evidence from the 2007 case was planted, those county officials are not trustworthy. Even if they're putting convicted murderers and rapists in jail, people will always remember their past mistakes. And that's far more damaging than whether or not Avery is guilty.

Instead of framing Making a Murderer as a show about Avery's innocence, it might be better to look at it as a spotlight on the mistakes and inconsistencies in this man's two separate experiences with the criminal justice system — and, possibly, the flaws in that system on a national scale. Making a Murderer shows the public just how easy it is to convict people of crimes they didn't commit.

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