SVU's latest episode makes us feel even worse about Steven Avery's conviction
You've seen Making a Murderer by now, right? If you have, the story of Steven Avery has likely haunted you. If you haven't, well, we'll get into that in a minute. But either way, this week's episode of Law & Order: SVU is likely to lead to some serious soul-searching over those who are wrongfully accused.
For those of you who have somehow managed to hold out and not get sucked into the streaming vortex that is Netflix's Making a Murderer, the docu-series explores the life and story of Steven Avery, a Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, native who served a whopping 18 years in prison after wrongfully being convicted of the sexual assault and attempted murder of a woman by the name of Penny Beerntsen.
In 2003, aided by the Innocence Project, Avery was fully exonerated by DNA evidence. Upon his release, he subsequently filed a $36 million civil lawsuit against Manitowoc County and several of the officials instrumental to his arrest.
Fast forward to two years later, when Avery made national news once again — this time for being charged with the murder of Teresa Halbach, a photographer who frequented the Avery family's salvage yard to take photos for an auto trader catalog.
Police on the case — including some of those involved in Avery's initial wrongful conviction — pointed to blood stains matching Avery's DNA that were reportedly found inside Halbach's car, as well as other evidence allegedly linking Avery to the murder.
For his part, though, Avery has always maintained that the charge was a frame-up created to restore the county's honor and to discredit the pending civil case against it. Among the discoveries in Avery's favor was the fact that a vial of Avery's blood stored in a police evidence locker was found with a broken seal and puncture hole in the lid.
What does all of this have to do with this week's episode of Law & Order: SVU? A lot.
Titled "Making a Rapist," the episode centers around a New York man named Sean who had been accused of rape and served 16 years before an untested rape kit proved he was wrongfully convicted.
His accuser, Melanie, and her now-adult daughter Ashley are at the press conference in support of Sean, telling the detectives they are going to take him out for his birthday. Olivia actually even seems a bit surprised to learn the three have become so close that Sean has been invited — and plans to attend — Ashley's upcoming wedding.
Only later that night, Fin and Rollins get an urgent call out to Melanie's house, where they learn that Ashley is barely hanging onto her life. She has been brutally raped, strangled, stabbed, bleached and burned, and is en route to the hospital.
Clearly terrified for her daughter, a traumatized Melanie tells Fin she feels certain she heard Sean's voice speaking to Ashley before the vicious attack. When the detective find out soon after Sean asked a friend to lie for him, the detectives execute a search warrant and find evidence of the attack in Sean's apartment.
Here's where the episode gets particularly impactful, especially when you consider Avery. As they are questioning Sean, he screams, "I know what it's like to be raped. I went in when I was 18, 140 lbs. What do you think happened?"
Horrible, I know. Still, I'm going to ask you to hold onto that thought for a minute.
Once the case goes to court, Melanie is reticent to testify, but ADA Barba draws out the real reason why: She blames herself because, as she says, her sending him to jail in the first place made him a monster. She sent an innocent man to jail, and he emerged the very thing she had accused him of being. Prison taught him to be a rapist.
At that point, Sean's lawyer accepts a plea deal, with the major caveat being that Sean has to allocute what he has done. As Olivia says, "We need everyone to see we got it right this time." When all is said and done, a tearful Melanie flees the courtroom. Olivia catches up with her outside, trying to reassure the grieving mother none of this is her fault. To which she replies, "Then whose is it?"
And there's the rub.
This episode makes you think long and hard about the Avery case. You know, even more so than you already were. Because whether or not you think Avery is guilty of the crime he is currently charged with or not, he was innocent when he went to jail.
At that point, he had not raped or murdered anyone. But he spent 18 formative years in jail being told that's who he was. Could his be a case of self-fulfilling prophecy, like Sean in this week's episode of Law & Order: SVU?
In the episode, a psychiatrist testifying on behalf of the defense discusses how it would be nearly impossible for a man in that position — wrongfully accused but who bore witness to horrible things in prison and who had to adapt to a traumatic reality to survive — to re-integrate into society.
They simply aren't the same person when they come out that they were when they went in.
So while there isn't any justification for raping and killing a woman like Sean did in SVU and like Avery is accused of doing in real life, don't we as a society also have to accept that there's more blame to go around? Some monsters are born, yes... but it would seem that some are made, too.
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