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Steven Avery's arrest photo.

New media is taking old murder convictions back to court

A Baltimore circuit judge this summer overturned the murder conviction of Adnan Syed, a decision many Serial fans believe can lead to the righting of an injustice.

Many who listen to the world’s most popular podcast believe the jury got it dead wrong in convicting Syed for the 1999 murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.

Also this summer, a federal magistrate in Milwaukee overturned the conviction of Brendan Dassey, a decision many Making a Murderer fans believe can right another injustice. Viewers of the binge-worthy, 10-part Netflix documentary believe that jury also got it wrong in convicting Dassey. They say the teenager was coerced into a confession, which was the only evidence that sent him to prison for the rape and murder of Teresa Halbach in 2005.

Most recently, a criminal defense attorney is demanding the new testing and re-testing of evidence in the case that sent Steven Avery to a Wisconsin prison for Halbach’s death. Avery is the man Making a Murderer implies was framed — made out to be a murderer.

These developments are raising questions about the extent to which popular series influence the outcome of criminal cases. Clearly, the programs have helped to bring together new defense teams, fueled more independent investigations of the crimes and led to the discovery of new information and potential witnesses. They just might impact whether men stay in or exit prison.

‘Serial’ sleuthing

Serial was serialized in 2014 and had more than 130 million downloads as of this summer. Week after week, those who listened to the podcast followed the twists and turns in a case that was decided by a jury in 2000.

The series, in addition to winning a Peabody Award for illuminating flaws in the justice system, led many listeners to speculate about Syed’s innocence and question whether he received a fair trial.

This summer, Baltimore Circuit Judge Martin P. Welch set aside Syed’s conviction for the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and granted him a new trial.

The state attorney general’s office, which is appealing, released a statement from Lee’s family the day after the judge’s decision: “We continue to grieve. We continue to believe justice was done when Mr. Syed was convicted of killing Hae.”

At a news conference that followed the ruling, Syed’s attorney, C. Justin Brown, was asked if a retrial would have been possible without Serial.

“I don’t think so,” Brown said.

In February, at post-conviction hearings, Syed’s defense team presented evidence that might have seemed new in a courtroom but was not new to Serial listeners. The new evidence included the testimony of alibi witness Asia McClain and the argument that Syed’s original defense counsel, the late Maria Cristina Gutierrez, was grossly negligent.

Adnan Syed

Adnan Syed

Gutierrez, during the trial, failed to question a state witness about the reliability of evidence relating to cellphone towers.

Welch, in a memo on his order, said the failure to ask about this “created a substantial possibility that the result of the trial was fundamentally unreliable.”

Welch also addressed attention generated by Serial: “Regardless of the public interest surrounding the case, the court used its best efforts to address the merits of petitioner’s petition for post-conviction relief like it would in any other case that comes before the court; unfettered by sympathy, prejudice or public opinion.”

Serial moved on from the Syed case with its second season, which focused on U.S. soldier Bowe Bergdahl and his capture by the Taliban.

‘Murderer’ GETS season 2

Making a Murderer, meanwhile, is returning to Wisconsin for new installments.

On July 19, Netflix announced new episodes in a news release that said it “will take fans of the acclaimed documentary series back inside the story of convicted murderer Steven Avery and his co-defendant Brendan Dassey as their respective investigative and legal teams challenge their convictions and the state fights to have the convictions and life sentences upheld.”

Less than a month later, on Aug. 12, U.S. Magistrate William Duffin overturned Dassey’s conviction and said he should be released in 90 days unless prosecutors decide to retry him.

The state is expected to appeal the ruling.

Defense attorneys have argued that investigators violated Dassey’s constitutional rights and made false promises to the then 16-year-old, coercing him into a confession that he and Avery sexually assaulted Halbach and that Avery shot her in the head before burning her remains.

Duffin called the confession “clearly involuntary.”

“These repeated false promises, when considered in conjunction with all relevant factors, most especially Dassey’s age, intellectual deficits, and the absence of a supportive adult, rendered Dassey’s confession involuntary under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments,” he wrote.

The news release from Netflix foretold another development in August — filings from Avery’s new attorney.

Brendan Dassey

Brendan Dassey

Defense attorney Kathleen Zellner, who has secured the exoneration of at least 17 people, in August filed a motion asking the Wisconsin Court of Appeals to pause proceedings and another motion seeking the state’s evidence so new forensic testing can be conducted.

Zellner, at a news conference outside the Manitowoc County Courthouse, told reporters Avery is “requesting and is willing to pay for the most comprehensive, thorough and advanced forensic testing ever requested by a criminal defendant in the state of Wisconsin.”

In the filing, she set the groundwork for the theory that Avery was framed by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office after suing the county for wrongful conviction. Avery served 18 years in prison on a rape charge that was ultimately overturned.

Zellner said Avery “has already completed a series of tests that will conclusively establish his innocence” and “no guilty person would ever allow such extensive testing to be done.”

The state, as WiG went to press, had not responded to the motions.

But clearly, Netflix is counting on a fight.

“This next chapter will provide an in-depth look at the high-stakes, post-conviction process, as well as the emotional toll the process takes on all involved,” read the Netflix news release, which referred to “characters close to the case.”

Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, in a statement issued after Dassey’s conviction was overturned, said, “As we have done for the past 10 years, we will continue to document the story as it unfolds and follow it wherever it may lead.”

More podcasts and docu-series

Press play

Serial, the This American Life spinoff podcast that examines the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, changed how people listened to podcasts. Actually, Serial turned many people into podcast listeners.

The series is still available for online listening and download, as is Undisclosed, which debuted in April 2015. The latter examines Syed’s case from the perspective of attorneys.

Some other podcasts for Serial listeners:

Sword and Scale, which explores disappearances, murders and conspiracies.

Criminal, “stories of people who’ve done wrong, been wronged or gotten caught somewhere in the middle.”

Actual Innocence, about wrongful convictions and injustice in the criminal justice system.

Casefile, about Australian true crime, the criminal justice system and unsolved cases.

Now streaming

More than 10 years before Serial and Making a Murderer, the French docu-series The Staircase explored the death of Kathleen Peterson in 2001 and the case against her husband. Michael Peterson alleged his wife was intoxicated and fell down the stairs, hitting her head. Police alleged Peterson bludgeoned his wife with a fireplace poker. The Staircase follows the investigation.

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