Steven Avery is an unlikely icon for innocence.
In contrast to “Serial” podcast’s Adnan Syed, he isn’t particularly charismatic or well spoken, nor does he have a relatable story – in Syed’s case, a high school romance – attached to the murder for which he has been convicted.
But here is what Avery, 53, does have: “Making a Murderer,” a 10-episode Netflix documentary series that raises questions about the circumstances surrounding his arrest and conviction. And with it, a collection of scenes, documents and theories that present an image of innocence that Avery never really enjoyed as a free man.
In 2007, Avery was convicted by a jury in Calumet County, Wisconsin, of the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach. He is serving a life sentence in Wisconsin’s Waupun Correctional Institution, and fans of the documentary say they want him out.
As of early Monday, the series has compelled nearly 200,000 people to sign Change.org and White House petitions calling for Avery’s pardon, an impossibility under the Constitution, which allows presidential pardons only for federal criminal convictions.
“This is a black mark on the justice system as a whole, and should be recognized as such, while also giving these men the ability to live as normal a life as possible,” says the White House petition, which also advocates for the release of Brendan Dassey, a nephew of Avery’s who was convicted in a separate trial of being a party to the murder and sexual assault. Avery had been imprisoned for a sexual assault conviction until he was exonerated in 2003.
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After watching “Making a Murder,” writes Michael Seyedian, who started the Change.org petition, “I am outraged with the injustices which have been allowed to compound and left unchecked in the case of Steven Avery. … Avery’s unconstitutional mistreatment at the hands of corrupt local law enforcement is completely unacceptable and is an abomination of due process.”
This declaration appears in an undated courtroom photo of Avery: mustached, with a furrowed brow and bags under his eyes, the latest “innocence project” taken up by a public emboldened by a story of true crime and punishment.
The 53-year-old Wisconsin native grew up in Manitowoc County, where his family ran an auto salvage business and built a reputation for being troublemakers. They were uneducated, outliers in the small community.
The young Avery sported a beard. He said that he was “stupid and hanging around with the wrong people” growing up, which resulted in his involvement with a couple of burglaries and one act of animal cruelty. But is he a rapist? A killer?
The first charge was tacked onto his name in 1985, then removed 18 years later. Avery spent 18 years in prison for the violent sexual assault of a beloved community figure – everything that he was not, according to the documentary – only to have DNA evidence reveal that the crime was not committed by him.
Avery maintained his innocence the whole time, and he filed a $36 million civil suit against the county for wrongful conviction upon his release. For the first time in Avery’s life, he was believed to be the good guy, fielding television interviews and public appearances that painted him as a sterling example of resilience in the face of unjust punishment.
The reprieve was short-lived. Two years after Avery thought he had escaped life behind bars for good, he was charged with killing Halbach.
After the photographer went missing, her vehicle was found in the Avery family’s junkyard, and prosecutors said DNA tests revealed Avery’s blood in the car.
Once again, he denied any wrongdoing. The jury did not buy it.
“The only thing I can think, they are trying to railroad me again and see if they can get away with it this time,” Avery told the Associated Press in 2005. This was the scenario that his family had been afraid of: By remaining in the county they had launched a lawsuit against, they had put themselves at risk of retaliation.
“Making a Murderer” suggests Avery’s innocence by pointing to all the parts of his life that made him appear all too guilty in the eyes of the jury. He had a criminal record, that one overturned conviction aside. His brothers had a history of sexual assault and burglary charges. Avery’s then-16-year-old nephew Dassey, who has a learning disability, told police that his uncle made him rape Halbach and help dispose of her body.
Then the documentary conjectures: Could the same things that made Avery look guilty actually have been what made him easy to frame?
At least 170,000 people think so.
Many of the comments on the Change.org petition are lengthy, with passionate pleas for Avery and Dassey’s release.
“I am a former military police officer, hold a degree in criminal justice, and am a current law student,” wrote Whitney Rasberry of Friendswood, Texas. “I have read and/or watched thousands of criminal cases. I have NEVER seen anything like this.”
Jennifer Welch of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, said: “This whole case was a joke! Avery was a target that day back when the rape happened! In the town where we live (I live in the same county as them) if you are different in any way, looks, beliefs, rich, poor, the way you dress, the way you talk, who you talk to, EVERYTHING about you is judged.”
Meanwhile, Manitowoc County Sheriff Robert Hermann has been fielding hundreds of angry calls about Avery since the documentary was released on Netflix on Dec. 18.
Although he had not seen the series, Hermann told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last Wednesday that he believes it is one-sided.
The special prosecutor in Avery’s murder trial, Ken Kratz, told WBAY-TV that he has been “vilified, certainly insulted and threatened” as a result of “Making a Murderer.”
He stands by the conviction. “Two murderers, in my opinion, were taken off the street,” said Kratz, who was contacted by the series producers but declined to be interviewed. He told Fox 11 News: “I believe there to be 80 to 90 percent of the physical evidence, the forensic evidence, that ties Steven Avery to this murder never to have been presented in this documentary.”
Read more about Ken Kratz and his fall from grace here.
Although Halbach’s family members declined to appear in the documentary, they said in a statement to WBAY-TV: “Having just passed the 10-year anniversary of the death of our daughter and sister, Teresa, we are saddened to learn that individuals and corporations continue to create entertainment and to seek profit from our loss.”
The movement around Avery’s pardon follows similar actions prompted by “Serial,” the podcast about the murder conviction of Adnan Syed for the 1999 death of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.
In the age of post-“Serial” true-crime fanaticism, there has been increasing scrutiny and skepticism aimed at the criminal justice system. Along with this, a renewed attention to the court of public opinion has emerged.
As with Avery’s story now, fans of “Serial” concocted their own theories for the true guilty party behind Lee’s killing, raising impassioned defenses on Syed’s behalf. In November, Baltimore City Circuit Judge Martin Welch granted a hearing on additional evidence that Syed’s attorneys hope will lead to a new trial.
The court will consider testimony from an alibi witness, Asia McClain, and the reliability of cellphone evidence originally used to trace Syed’s whereabouts – both elements of the case which were explored in “Serial.”
© 2016, The Washington Post