In case you managed to miss it, Netflix released the binge-worthy docuseries Making a Murderer on Dec. 18, and people are enthralled with the story of Steven Avery — a Wisconsin man who spent 18 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit.
Viewers have become so engrossed, in fact, that they’ve created two separate petitions calling for (major spoiler alert) Avery’s freedom. Yep, the man who was exonerated of one crime, has now been accused of and convicted in another. Clearly, fans are none too impressed with his prosecution and many — to the tune of around 200,000 petition signers — are convinced Avery is still innocent.
In full disclosure, I’m only three episodes into the 10-part series, but I can already forewarn you that it is a dizzying, maddening descent into the dark underbelly of the penal system. In case you aren’t up for that kind of emotional investment or simply don’t have the time to watch Making a Murderer, I’ve put together a little debriefer so you can still participate in the inevitable watercooler conversations.
1. Who is Steven Avery?
At the age of 22, Avery was arrested in the alleged rape of Penny Ann Beernsten, a prominent and well-liked figure in Avery’s hometown area of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. After Beernsten identified Avery as her attacker, and a forensic expert testified that a hair recovered from one of Avery’s shirts was “consistent” with Beernsten’s hair, Avery was convicted and sentenced to 32 years in prison.
2. If this was a conspiracy, why was he targeted?
By Avery’s own account, he was far from a wholesome young man before the rape charges. At age 18, he’d spent time in prison for the burglary of a bar. At age 20, he did another stretch in prison after pleading guilty to pouring fuel onto his own cat and throwing it (alive) into a fire. Avery suggests in the documentary that law enforcement were gunning for him because they considered him a nuisance.
3. How did his conviction get overturned?
Although Avery filed several appeals and maintained his innocence during the entire tenure of his prison stay, the Wisconsin man was unable to make any headway for a decade. Then, in 1995, a petition requesting DNA testing was granted. Unfortunately, while scrapings taken from Beernsten’s fingernails did find the DNA of an unknown assailant, Avery could not conclusively be ruled out.
But when the Wisconsin Innocence Project secured a court order for DNA testing of 13 hairs in 2002, the state crime laboratory was able to determine with certainty that the assailant had actually been Gregory Allen — a convicted felon who looked similar to Avery and had been a person of interest. The following year, Avery was exonerated of the sexual assault charges.
4. Did Avery ever meet his accuser?
Yes. By Beernsten’s account, he brought her in for a big “bear hug” after she apologized to him, and he told her it was in the past. Together, they worked with the Wisconsin Department of Justice to adopt a model eyewitness identification protocol, which passed into legislation on Oct. 31, 2005 — the same day Teresa Halbach went missing.
5. Who was Teresa Halbach?
A photographer who routinely photographed vehicles at Avery’s Auto Salvage for Auto Trader Magazine, Halbach was only 25 years old when she disappeared on Halloween 2005. On the day of her disappearance, she was scheduled to meet with Avery for a photo shoot, despite having told coworkers he made her uncomfortable. Soon after, Halbach’s car was discovered in the salvage yard — and her cremated remains were found only a few steps from Avery’s trailer.
6. What sentence is Avery currently serving?
In the alleged murder of Halbach, Avery was convicted in 2007 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Convicted alongside Avery was his nephew, Brendan Dassey, who was charged with being a party to a first-degree intentional homicide, mutilation of a corpse and first-degree sexual assault. He was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 40 years. A 2011 appeal by Avery for a new trial was denied by a state appeals court.
7. Why are people so sure Avery and Dassey were framed?
Oof, where do I even start? For one, the timing. At the time of Avery’s arrest in Halbach’s murder, he was in the midst of a $36 million civil suit against the county — one that he could very well have won, given the 18 years he spent in prison after being falsely accused and convicted. From there, it gets even dicier. Much of the conviction hinged on the idea that Halbach was stabbed and killed in either Avery’s bedroom or garage, yet not a drop of blood was recovered in either place.
Also, can we say conflict of interest? Several of the same members of the Manitowoc County law enforcement division who’d been involved in Avery’s first conviction had a heavy hand in this case, too. In fact, two such officers found Halbach’s car keys and a bullet used against her — only after federal investigators had combed the property for days with no results and the two officers were left to “search” the property on their own. One officer also called in Halbach’s missing car days before it was allegedly reported found.
Additionally, Avery’s nephew Massey confessed to the crimes but had been under immense pressure from the police. This is especially suggestive of coercion, considering Dassey’s documented IQ is low enough for him to be classified as having an intellectual disability. He also later recanted, saying he’d swiped the entire story line from a book.
I could go on, but suffice it to say there’s plenty that could point to a potential frame job and certainly highlight the woeful inadequacies of the legal system in this country.
8. Is there evidence implicating Avery, too?
Therein lies the rub. While the shoddy and seemingly unethical prosecution of Avery merits a retrial at the very least, that’s not to say there was a lack of facts indicating Avery was guilty of the crime. This incriminating evidence includes phone logs showing Avery had repeatedly called Halbach on the day of her death, the fact the bullet came from Avery’s personal gun and the revelation that both Halbach’s camera and PalmPilot were found in Avery’s burn barrel.