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Making a phenomenon: Netflix series shines spotlight on Steve Avery murder case

“Did he just reference the O.J. Simpson case?” the armchair juror asked, looking sideways at her co-juror, sunk deep into the couch after hours of binge-watching Making a Murderer, the Netflix series about Wisconsin’s prosecution of Steven Avery for a rape he did not commit and the murder of a woman for which he is serving a life sentence.

The 10-part series, a runaway hit that debuted on the streaming service in mid-December, has Netflix subscribers taking on the roles of juror and judge, prosecutor and defense attorney, cop and criminologist in the State of Wisconsin’s cases against Avery for the rape of a Manitowoc woman in 1985 and the murder of a Calumet County woman in 2005. Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, also was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the 2005 murder of 25-year-old freelance photographer Teresa Halbach at the Avery’s 40-acre property and salvage yard near Mishicot.

The reference to the Simpson case is apt because, like the televised proceedings in that trial, Making a Murderer leads the audience into deep, disturbing debates about guilt and innocence while questioning the integrity of the criminal justice system. Since the series launched, more than 250,000 people have signed petitions urging the president to pardon Avery and Dassey, which is not even an option in state cases.

The story may be new to Netflix’s audience, but Steven Avery’s trials and tribulations are familiar to Wisconsinites. He’s been known in the state as a small-time thief, a defendant, a convicted rapist, a prison inmate, an exoneree, a freed man, an advocate for the innocence project and, finally, as a convicted killer — as “evil incarnate.”

But now, once again, Avery is becoming known as the possible victim of a corrupt legal system, as a repeat non-offender. On Jan. 11, he filed a new appeal. He claims that prosecutors went after him to retaliate for the $36 million lawsuit he filed against Manitowoc officials.

The case recently settled for $400,000.

Avery, despite having alibi witnesses, was convicted of raping a woman jogging along Lake Michigan in Manitowoc in 1985. He served 18 years, exhausting many appeals, before his release from prison on Sept. 11, 2003, after the Wisconsin Innocence Project proved, using DNA testing, that another man committed the crime.

Avery’s wrongful conviction led Wisconsin lawmakers to champion new legislation meant to help the exonerated.

Still, Wisconsin Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, in an investigation of how Avery ended up in prison, did not find cause to bring criminal charges or ethics violations against the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, which arrested Avery and ignored information that should have led to the arrest of the actual rapist, or against the Manitowoc District Attorney’s Office. In October 2004, Avery filed a federal suit for his wrongful conviction, seeking $36 million in compensation.

A year later, and shortly after several key players in the 1985 case were deposed in the lawsuit, Avery was arrested for the murder of Halbach. In her professional capacity, she had visited the Avery property on Halloween. Her burned remains were found behind Avery’s trailer. Her SUV was found in the Avery salvage yard. And the key to that vehicle eventually was found in Avery’s bedroom.

Months later, investigators obtained a confession from Dassey, 16 at the time, who said he participated in the rape and murder.

It was DNA evidence, which led to Avery’s exoneration in the 1985 crime, that sent Avery back to prison in the 2005 homicide.

Making a Murderer makes a compelling case that Avery was framed by at least two officers at the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, who allegedly planted Avery’s blood and other evidence. The series also contends that Dassey was coerced and tricked into making the confessions he later recanted.

The filmmakers, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, say the 10-part series took nearly 10 years to complete and is solid.

Wisconsin authorities say the series is slanted. They warn that viewers are seeing just 10 hours of film about a story that spans 30 years. They point out that testimony in Avery’s murder trial lasted 19 days, with more than 50 witnesses taking the stand.

Manitowoc County Sheriff Robert Hermann, who said justice was served in the Avery murder case, called Making a Murderer “a film. It’s missing a lot of important pieces of evidence.”

But for many viewers, the evidence trail isn’t ending with the conclusion of the series. Old news stories and clips are recirculating on the Internet as fans-turned-investigators are creating reddit and wiki pages.

In the first week of January, the Manitowoc County Clerk of Courts office announced a flood of requests for transcripts, exhibits and other records that fill six banker boxes. One Australian woman requested copies of the entire Avery trial transcript, which cost her $6,000.

‘MAKING A MURDERER,’ MAKING A HIT …

WHAT DOES THE SERIES CLAIM?

The documentary strongly suggests the possibility that Manitowoc County sheriff’s deputies planted evidence against Steven Avery, including a key found in his bedroom and blood found in the vehicle of homicide victim Teresa Halbach.

 

WHAT ABOUT THE VICTIMS?

Teresa Halbach’s brother Mike declined comment since releasing a statement from the family before the documentary became public. “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 statement read. “We continue to hope that the story of Teresa’s life brings goodness to the world.” Other relatives have claimed the series is one-sided.

 

WHAT HAS THE REACTION BEEN LIKE?

It’s been all over the map. Celebrities have tweeted about how into the series they are, late night talk show host Seth Meyers spoofed it and fake Twitter accounts have been set up for some of the main players in the case. However, Manitowoc County sheriff’s officers have received threats in emails and voicemails.

Dan Auerbach, lead singer of the rock bands The Black Keys and The Arcs, posted a song on The Arcs’ website inspired by the documentary series. Proceeds from the sale of the song will go to the Innocence Project, a legal organization that uses DNA evidence to exonerate prisoners. The song, called “Lake Superior,” includes several lyrics that reference the case, such as: “Your alibi will never do when the whole town’s got it out for you.”

 

WHAT ABOUT AVERY?

Steven Avery filed an appeal to overturn his conviction on Jan. 11. His attorney is confident that the appeal will succeed based on new evidence.

 

 

— from AP and WiG reports