From fan theories to hurling statues, this true crime documentary has everyone binging
If, like most of the working public, this Monday marks your first day back in work after the holiday break, it’s very likely that your co-workers will want to talk about the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer that they binged on over Christmas and New Year’s. With true crime stories now slaying the media landscape, with Serial and The Jinx creating worldwide interest into crimes and murder, Netflix’s gamble into a show ten years in the making has paid off, with Making a Murderer making a killing for the online media company.
This morning, gathered around water coolers or porridge oats blooming as they slowly rotate in microwaves, people at work are offering their theories, their opinions, and their spoilers in the case of Steven Avery, a man who spent 18 years in jail for which he was later exonerated by DNA evidence. And it’s only after this spell in prison, the subject of the first episode which Netflix has made freely available on YouTube, that Avery’s real problems begin.
Steve Avery's mugshot in 2005 [Netflix]
If you have finished the show, there are many questions left unanswered, and here we’ll attempt to offer some of them. If you haven’t seen the show, SPOILERS ABOUND, so consider yourself warned – we, like the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office, don’t mess around.
Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi were both film students at New York’s Columbia University in 2005 when they happened upon a story on the front page of the New York Times. “Freed by DNA, Now Charged in New Crime,” led them to the story of Steven Avery. His innocence or guilt was not a factor in the Demos and Ricciardi’s interest in his case, and they entered into the project because of unique nature of Avery’s status an accused.
Filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, who spent a decade producing their groundbreaking series [Netflix]
“In this country, people being accused of heinous crimes is unfortunately not that rare an event, but the fact that Steven had been wronged by the system, and was in the process of trying to reform the system and hold people accountable just raised so many questions,” Ricciardi told Vulture. “Could somebody who had those motivations possibly do something like this? Or did somebody trying to change the system see the system come back down on top of them? Either way, there was a story.”
Before becoming a full-time filmmaker, spending 10 years on this project and moving to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to immerse herself in the story, Laura Ricciardi qualified as a lawyer and even worked part-time in the legal industry to finance herself throughout the series’ production. Her legal knowledge has been cited as instrumental in the show’s assessment of how the case was handled.
What is immediately clear to viewers of Making a Murderer is that the Avery family, who have very few reasons to have any faith in the media, intrinsically trusted the two documentarians that intimately recorded their lives for a decade. And Demos and Ricciardi say that that trust is entirely down to Steven Avery himself.
“We started to get to know Steven by telephone and we eventually started meeting him at the county jail, developing a relationship with him and gaining his trust,” Ricciardi told Vulture.
“He called and arranged for Moira and me to go out and meet his mother. We were really impressed with how open the Averys were to meeting us. They heard us out about who we were and what we were doing and why we were interested in their story. It's very much Steven's story, but it's also a family's story. It's clear that when someone is wrongfully imprisoned, not only that person but all their loved ones endure it as well.”
The original plan was to turn Steven Avery’s trial into a single two-hour feature documentary, but as the case went on, with accusations of evidence tampering, questions about the lines of investigation followed, and the reliability of witnesses, it quickly became clear that turning the 700 hours of footage into something that does the story justice in a single viewing.
In 2004, Sundance released its groundbreaking series The Staircase, which followed the high-profile murder trial of novelist Michael Peterson, from the 911 call made claiming his wife had fallen down a flight of stairs while drunk through to the verdict at his trial for her murder.
The Staircase inspired Demos and Ricciardi to pitch their show as a series to HBO and PBS, both of whom passed on it. It wasn’t until 2013, having shown Netflix executives a rough edit of three episodes, that the show finally secured a distributor.
Disgraced former DA Ken Kratz, who led the prosecution team that put both Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey behind bars for the murder of Teresa Halbach, is unsurprisingly not a fan of the show, claiming that Demos and Ricciardi failed to include some of the DA’s key evidence in the convictions.
“If you pick and choose and edit clips over a 10-year span, you’re going to be able to spoon-feed a movie audience so they conclude what you want them to conclude,” Kratz told Maxim. “That the theory of planted evidence ... is accepted by some people isn’t surprising at all. The piece is done very well, and I would have come to the same conclusion if that was the only material I was presented with.”
Ken Kratz later stepped down after it was revealed he was involved in a 'sexting' scandal, sending messages to a woman whose partner he was prosecuting in a domestic violence case [Netflix]
The evidence in question includes a former co-worker of Ms Halbach saying that the 25-year-old photographer was “creeped out” by Avery’s conduct when she previously visited his home, including a time when he allegedly answered the door wearing nothing but a towel.
The filmmakers were not the only ones to discard this testimony, as the trial judge refused to let the jury hear it, “because the date wasn’t clear and few details were known.”
Furthermore, Kratz claims that phone records show that Avery made two calls to Halbach ahead of her visit on October 31st 2005, which was the day the photographer disappeared, and that those calls were made using a feature to keep his phone number private.
Demos and Ricciardi strongly refute claims that they ignored this in order to spin a better yarn, with Demos telling The Wrap: “We tried to choose what we thought was Kratz’s strongest evidence pointing toward Steven’s guilt, the things he talked about at his press conferences, the things that were really damning toward Steven. That’s what we put in. The things I’ve heard listed as things we’ve left out seem much less convincing of guilt than Teresa’s DNA on a bullet or her remains in his backyard.”
Teresa Halbach disappeared on Halloween, 2005, and her burnt remains were discovered on Steven Avery's property [Netflix]
As the record stands, Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey murdered her, mutilated her body, and burnt her corpse in a fire. Her family members, releasing a statement about the series before it was released, maintain that the convictions are right and proper, and said that they were saddened to learn that Demos, Ricciardi, and Netflix were creating “entertainment and to seek to profit from our loss.”
Avery and his lawyers make an, admittedly, very credible case of police collusion in an effort to pin the crime on Avery, as well as questionable tactics in the interrogation of Brendan Dassey without a lawyer present on numerous occasions. As such, the Internet is rife with alternative theories as to what may have happened to Teresa, though there is a serious lack of evidence pointing to another suspect.
One theory revolves around a man referred to as ‘The German’, first posited in a Reddit post from 2009, which has now been deleted. The abusive man was allegedly in the area at the time of Teresa Halbach’s disappearance, he allegedly told his wife he encountered a “stupid” photographer, and that he had scratches and injuries on his body.
Other online theories include other members of the Avery family (most notably Bobby Dassey and Scott Tadych), members of the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, Ryan Hillegas (Teresa’s ex-boyfriend), an unknown stalker who had been haranguing Teresa with phone calls, Steven Avery himself, or even potential suicide.
As it currently stands, Avery will spend the rest of his life in jail with no chance of parole. Dassey, who was only 16 years old when police picked him up in his high school, will be incarcerated until he is 59.
The Innocence Project, a US litigation and public policy organisation dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals, had previously championed Avery in light of his conviction and 18 years in jail for the sexual assault of a local woman in the 1980s. In Making a Murderer, it is revealed that the body removed all traces of Avery from its website when he was arrested for murder. It has now put his 1985 case back on its website.
Since the show became a huge hit, a Change.org petition requesting President Barack Obama to pardon Avery has received more than 160,000 signatures, and a further 18,000 have pledged their support to a White House petition asking for his release and pardon.
Whether or not the popularity of a TV show can lead to that kind of drastic action is unlikely, but of one thing we can be certain – Avery will never see the documentary while he remains behind bars. Despite his co-operation with Demos and Ricciardi, he has no access to Netflix and according to Dean Strang, his defense lawyer, he is not allowed to watch DVDs.
Lawyer by profession, GAA obsessive by vocation? [Netflix]
Along with inspiring a fandom and some racy slash fiction, lawyer Dean Strang has a penchant for one of our national games, with no clear reason why. Based in Madison, which has its own hurling club, we can only speculate that he relaxes after a bitter legal clash by watching some batter ash clashing instead.
UPDATE: Our colleagues over at the Daily Edge managed to get to the bottom of this one, with Strang telling them:
"It is a hurling statue, not a trophy. I have a dear friend, a wonderful criminal defense lawyer in Milwaukee who is a first-generation Irish American from the south side of Chicago. He gave it to me some years ago as a gift. I treasure it, as I do his friendship."