'Making a Murderer': Is Steven Avery Guilty? A Deeper Look Into Netflix Series

Exploring the strange legal odyssey of Steven Avery in Netflix docu-series.

January 21, 2016, 3:04 PM

— -- The Netflix docu-series “Making a Murderer” explores the strange legal odyssey of Steven Avery, who was sentenced to life in prison without parole in 2007 for the murder of Teresa Halbach.

In the four weeks since the series was released, the story has captivated the nation, launching a frenzy of binge-watching, and fueling conspiracy theories and outrage, both among those who think Avery was wrongfully convicted – even framed – and those who think the documentary was misleading.

The documentary begins in 2003 in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, when Avery had just been released from prison after serving 18 years for a rape he didn’t commit. He had been exonerated by DNA evidence.

Two years later, in 2005, just as Avery was in the middle of a $36 million dollar lawsuit against the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s department related to his 1985 wrongful rape conviction, he was arrested for murder.

Avery had gone from being a celebrated face of wrongful convictions to being accused of raping and dismembering Halbach.

Halbach, 25, was a freelance photographer working for Autotrader magazine when she went missing on Oct. 31, 2005. She had come to the Avery family’s salvage yard in Mishicot, Wisconsin, to take pictures of a vehicle Avery was selling. Her charred remains were found in a burn-pit near his trailer.

The story caught the attention of two aspiring filmmakers, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, who moved to Wisconsin to begin filming as Avery’s murder trial was about to start.

“We were there because we wanted to ask bigger questions about the system,” Ricciardi said.

“Is he guilty beyond reasonable doubt? Is the process fair? Can we trust the verdict?” Demos added.

The two devoted a decade to the project, gaining extraordinary access to the main players, from Avery, who spoke to them by phone from jail, to his family on the outside, to Avery’s defense team, who argued that their client was being railroaded, alleging that the local sheriff’s department, furious about Avery’s lawsuit against them, framed him for Halbach’s death.

But the defense had a difficult road ahead, overcoming what seemed like a mountain of evidence against Avery, including that Halbach’s remains were found on his property, along with Halbach’s car that was spattered with his blood, and Halbach’s car key that was found in his home with his DNA on it.

The prosecution also alleged that Avery was the last person to see Halbach alive.

The filmmakers embedded with the defense team and captured key moments, such as when Avery’s attorneys discover that a vial of Avery’s blood – still in evidence from the 1985 wrongful rape conviction case – appeared to have been tampered with.

Also in the documentary, viewers see that the defense attorneys believe the police planted Halbach’s car key to her Toyoto Rav-4 inside Avery’s trailer. The key wasn’t recovered until after Avery’s bedroom had already been searched for several days and it was found by two members of the local sheriff’s department who had recently been disposed in Avery’s civil suit.

But it wasn’t just Avery who was charged with the death of Halbach.

Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey, who was just 16 years old at the time, was also arrested for murder, accused of being an accomplice.

“Making a Murderer” has transformed Avery’s former defense attorney, the eloquent, emotional Dean Strang, into a digital-age folk hero.

Even now, nine years after Avery’s conviction, Strang says the case still troubles him.

“I want him out of prison,” Strang told “Nightline.” “Just because I remain just plagued by doubts that he’s guilty and I really am sort of haunted by the concern that he’s sitting there innocent in prison.”

In stark opposition to Strang, some on the Internet have identified a villain in the documentary: former prosecutor Ken Kratz, the man who put Avery and Dassey away.

When “Nightline” arrived at Kratz’s office -- he’s now a defense attorney -- he pointed out the remains of a glitter bomb someone had sent him, as well as nasty voice mails and emails, one of which said, “I hope your daughter gets raped and murdered and that you have to sit and watch that.”

Kratz blames the filmmakers for the backlash he’s received.

“This is not a documentary at all. It’s still a defense advocacy piece,” he said. “What they pick and choose … causes only one reaction and only one conclusion: That Mr. Avery was innocent.”

Kratz says the jury rejected the “framing” defense in part because they saw vital pieces of evidence the filmmakers excluded, including that Avery’s DNA was also found on the hood latch of Halbach’s car.

“It was non-blood DNA,” Kratz said. “Why is that important? Because it’s absolutely inconsistent with, uh, any kind of planting defense … Because you can’t plant, first of all, sweat, all right? … How do you leave that out of the documentary?”

But when asked why Avery’s fingerprints weren’t recovered from Halbach’s car, Kratz said, “I don’t know.”

“They are looking for DNA… That’s what was looked for, and that’s what they found,” he said. I don’t have the case file. This is 10 years ago … I knew that the DNA evidence from the hood latch was an important part of what I presented to dispel the ‘planted evidence,’ I don’t want anybody to rely on my memory of … what kind of evidence the crime lab looked for or what was developed.”

According to Kratz, perhaps the most damning omission in the Netflix series was that Avery made two calls to Halbach the day she went missing using the *67 feature on his phone that blocks a caller’s identity. He also called the Autotrader officers and requested her by name to come and photograph the van he was selling; but he left his sister’s name and number, instead of his.

“Steven Avery did not just come upon Teresa Halbach by accident, he targeted her,” Kratz said. “He believed, at least my theory is that using a different name and a different phone number was, was good enough.”

The filmmakers said they disagree with Kratz that they left out key elements to create a pro-Avery misrepresentation.

“It would be impossible for us to include all the evidence that was presented in the trial,” Ricciardi said. “That’s called a trial. What we made was a documentary… Kratz himself later said he presented a circumstantial forensics science case and that’s what we are trying to show in the documentary. He did not have direct evidence of Steven Avery’s guilt. I’m sure he would have used it.”

Sometimes lost in the uproar over the Avery case was that his nephew Dassey was also sent to prison in part because of the confession he told investigators, where he seems to detail how Halbach was killed.

For some viewers, Dassey’s confession tape is the most infuriating part of the story. Critics say the videotaped confession shows Dassey, who has a low I.Q., being manipulated into giving a false confession. When he watches the Dassey tapes, Strang said he sees “a cognitively impaired, naive young man, led by intelligent well-trained adults who used a manipulative set of techniques ... to try to get him to reveal details or adopt the storyline suggestive to them.”

But the judge ruled that the confession was given freely and willingly and so it was allowed into evidence during Dassey’s trail. Ken Kratz said he feels confident that what he sees is a legitimate confession.

“Yes, when you watch the entire product of it,” he said. “I would invite any of your viewers to read the entire transcript before again buying what is spoon-fed them.”

Despite Dassey’s testimony, where he said he made up the story he told investigators, he was sentenced to life in prison.

With so many people across the country obsessed with this story, the dead-end road that leads to the Avery salvage yard where Halbach’s car was found has become a kind of tourist destination, with people stopping to take selfies with the Avery property sign in the background.

Since the documentary was released, local reporter Jessica McBride has come to resemble a freelance gumshoe, combing through the court documents herself.

“The closer you get to Mishicot and the area where the Averys actually live, the more likely people are to say, ‘Well, they are guilty,’” McBride told “Nightline.”

Manitowoc County Sheriff Robert Hermann, who was not the sheriff at the time of Avery and Dassey’s arrests, said even almost a decade after the convictions, he is firm that his deputies never did anything inappropriate with evidence. He also said one of his deputies who found Halbach’s car key in Avery’s trailer – then-patrol Sgt. Andrew Colborn – now has a new position in the department.

“He handles our evidence here and our investigative division,” Hermann said.

Perhaps the strangest twist in the whole saga is that three years after the murder trials, Kratz, the former prosecutor, became embroiled in scandal. He pleaded no contest after The Associated Press unearthed racy text messages Kratz had sent to a domestic violence abuse victim. He said his problem stemmed from a drug dependency, one that he insists post-dates the Avery and Dassey trials.

“Being the center of attention for 18 months every day, kind of being in the limelight and things then going back to normal… and I started medicating,” Kratz said. “All your inhibitions go away, and you add to that kind of a narcissistic personality that kind of underlies all of that kind of a powerful position… Uh, well that combination is a recipe for disaster.”

Kratz lost his wife and his job, but now, five years later, he said he is sober and running his own defense practice, although he said business has dried up because of the bad publicity from “Making a Murderer.”

“If this costs me my private practice, my private law practice, I would take that trade, because I know I did the right thing,” he said.Ryan Ferguson and Mario Casciario.

Meanwhile, Dassey is waiting on a decision from a federal judge that could allow a new trial.

But even after the documentary and the backlash that came in the aftermath of its release, many viewers are still left with more questions than answers over whether Avery and Dassey are really guilty.

“What the documentary did was it focused on the inconvenient facts that are weird for the law enforcement authorities and I think they are legitimate questions,” McBride, the local reporter, said.Even Strang, Avery’s former defense attorney, struggles with the thought that he may be guilty.

“A big part of me worries that he might be guilty,” he said. “An even bigger part of me thinks if convicting people on maybes, possibilities, is how the system works, that’s great, we can all slap each other on the back and go out for a beer. But that’s not how the system is supposed to work.”

The Halbach family declined ABC News’ requests for comments. In a statement released to Action 2 News prior to the release of the series, the Halbach family said, “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. We continue to hope that the story of Teresa’s life brings goodness to the world.”

As for the filmmakers, who spent years looking at evidence and with the Avery family, even they have questions about whether Avery killed Halbach, and they say this story could remain a mystery.

“It’s impossible for me to say, I wasn’t there,” Demos said. “What I can say … that I do not believe it was proven that he did it beyond a reasonable doubt.”

“Only the people involved would know who killed Teresa Halbach,” filmmaker Ricciardi added. “So to that extent we will never know. Unless there is newly discovered evidence and you know that could come from anyone who was involved.”

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