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The controversy surrounding Steven Avery's conviction

Steven Avery's mugshot
Image: A police photo of Steven Avery from 1985 | GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

On the morning of 29th July 1985, Penny Beerntsen was jogging on the beach in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, when she was attacked. A man had come up behind her, dragged her into the woods, beat her, sexually assaulted her and left her for dead. An investigation got underway and a local man named Steven Avery quickly emerged as the primary suspect.

Avery was known to be a strange figure in the small community and he already had a criminal record. In 1981, he was found guilty of burglarising a bar with an accomplice. After serving 10 months of a two-year sentence, he was released on probation with an order to pay restitution. In the subsequent year, he committed an act of animal cruelty by pouring gasoline on a cat and throwing it into a bonfire, resulting in his incarceration until August 1983.

Then in January 1985, Avery was accused of being involved in a confrontation where he ran his cousin's car off the road. Upon stopping, he brandished a gun at her, accusing her of spreading rumours about him. He was convicted of endangering safety and possessing a firearm as a felon, leading to a six-year sentence.

Following Penny's identification of Avery as the perpetrator of her attack, he was charged with first-degree sexual assault and attempted murder. Throughout the trial, Avery maintained an alibi, claiming he had been assisting his father in pouring concrete for a sheep barn and then went with his wife and five children to purchase paint. Despite the absence of direct evidence linking him to the crime, Avery was found guilty and sentenced to 32 years in prison.

From behind bars, Avery vehemently proclaimed his innocence. However, it wasn't until 2003 when the Wisconsin Innocence Project intervened in the case that the truth began to surface. DNA testing revealed that the genetic material collected from the crime scene belonged to Gregory A. Allen, who was already serving a 60-year prison term for a separate sexual assault in Green Bay in 1995.

Following his exoneration, Avery pursued justice through a $32 million federal civil rights lawsuit against Manitowoc County, the former sheriff, and former district attorneys. The lawsuit contended that there existed a pervasive ‘attitude of hostility’ within the Sheriff's Department towards Avery and his family even prior to his arrest. It further alleged that crucial evidence implicating Allen had been disregarded by the sheriff and district attorneys. Despite warnings from Manitowoc police regarding Allen's potential involvement based on previous crimes in the area, Sheriff Tom Kocourek focused solely on Avery.

Avery expressed how the wrongful conviction had devastated his life, remarking, ‘I got no wife. I got no kids.’ Upon his release, he initially resided with family in Two Rivers. However, strained relationships led him to relocate to an ice shanty on family property. Subsequently, Avery moved into a trailer near his relatives and received approximately $9,000 in community donations. He also found employment in the family's auto salvage business.

The wrongful conviction of Steven Avery captured national attention, sparking debates on the reliability of eyewitness testimonies, forensic evidence and the fairness of trials. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel implicated 14 individuals, including the prosecutor and the judge. This case raised many profound questions about the integrity of the criminal justice system, and Avery had a massive support team behind him.

Despite the gradual lifting of suspicion surrounding Avery, a new investigation emerged in 2005, thrusting him back into the spotlight. On 31st October 2005, photographer Teresa Halbach disappeared after scheduling a meeting with Avery at his home near Avery's Auto Salvage. Avery had requested Teresa’s services to photograph his sister's minivan for an online sale, a task she had performed for him on multiple occasions. Following Teresa’s reported disappearance, detectives visited Avery, where he claimed she had arrived, photographed the minivan, and departed within five minutes.

The search for Teresa Halbach intensified, with her friends and family combing through the grounds of the auto salvage yard with permission from a member of the Avery family. Their efforts led to the discovery of Teresa's missing car in a rural gravel pit within the salvage yard - a location Avery used for storing junk vehicles. Avery claimed ignorance regarding the vehicle's presence, stating he hadn't visited the area ‘in quite a while’.

After recovering Teresa's vehicle, forensic analysis yielded significant evidence. Bloodstains matching Avery's DNA were discovered within the vehicle. Moreover, Teresa's DNA was found in the back of the vehicle, while Avery's DNA was detected on the hood latch.

Subsequently, detectives obtained a search warrant for Avery's property and the salvage yard. Within Avery's bedroom, they uncovered a .22-calibre semiautomatic rifle and a .50-calibre black powder muzzleloader. Additionally, they discovered the key to Teresa's vehicle, bearing Avery's DNA. Further investigation in the garage revealed 11 spent .22-calibre shell casings. On 10th November, Avery was arrested on a weapons violation charge amid ongoing efforts to locate Teresa.

At Avery's property, detectives persisted with their investigation. During their search, they stumbled upon fragments inside a burn barrel, along with charred electronics and a camera. Analysis of the fragments revealed them to be remnants of an adult female, including teeth, leading detectives to confirm that they had discovered Teresa’s remains. ‘It appears that an attempt was made to dispose of a body by an incendiary means. However, that attempt was not completely successful,’ said Calumet County Sheriff Jerry Pahel. Upon a subsequent search of Avery's residence, detectives uncovered a bullet fragment containing Teresa's DNA, which had been overlooked in the initial searches.

Avery was subsequently charged with Teresa’s murder, but he professed his innocence, claiming that he had been framed to undermine his pending lawsuit. However, in March 2006, a significant development arose when Avery's 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, confessed during interrogation. Dassey told detectives that he had assisted his uncle in Teresa's murder and disposal of her remains.

According to his account, while delivering mail to Avery's residence, he heard a woman's screams emanating from within. Allegedly, Avery invited him inside, where Dassey claimed he was coerced into participating in the sexual assault on Teresa, who was purportedly restrained. Dassey further alleged that his uncle instructed him to cut Teresa with a knife and then ‘thanked’ him when he helped burn her body and conceal her vehicle.

The remainder of Dassey's family rallied to his defence, emphasising his learning disabilities and contending that he had made the confession because he believed he would be allowed to return home. Dassey, whose statements had been inconsistent, later retracted his confession. His legal representatives accused detectives of using coercive tactics during the interrogation, such as suggestive questioning, leading remarks, and promises of leniency. Despite this, Dassey was charged as an accessory to the murder.

Meanwhile, Steven Avery's murder trial commenced in February 2007, with the prosecution outlining the evidence they had amassed against him. They theorised that Avery had shot Teresa in the head in his garage, citing the discovery of the bullet as support. The prosecution alleged that Avery then transferred Teresa's body to the cargo area of her vehicle before cremating her remains in the burn barrel.

In response, Avery's defence team contended that the evidence had been manipulated by law enforcement, pointing to a potential conflict of interest arising from his prior wrongful conviction lawsuit. They disclosed the discovery of a vial containing Avery's blood in the Manitowoc County Clerk of Courts Office, suggesting it could have been used to plant blood in Teresa's vehicle. They further argued that the vial showed signs of tampering, including a puncture on the top, indicating possible interference.

Despite the defence’s efforts, the jury ultimately found Avery guilty of first-degree intentional homicide, leading to a life sentence in prison without the possibility of parole. Following the verdict, Avery's lawsuit was settled for $400,000. Brendan Dassey underwent a separate trial, where he too was convicted of murder, rape, and mutilation of a corpse.

In 2015, Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey captured international attention with the release of Making a Murderer. Produced by Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, this 10-part series meticulously chronicled Avery's tumultuous journey, from his wrongful conviction in 1985 to his subsequent arrest and trial for the murder of Teresa Halbach in 2005. The documentary shed light on the flaws and biases ingrained within the criminal justice system, as well as the impact of media sensationalism.

Making a Murderer presented a compelling argument for Avery's innocence, raising doubts about the validity of his conviction and the fairness of his trial. Many viewers of the series became convinced of Avery and Dassey's innocence. However, critics pointed out that certain evidence supporting Avery's guilt was omitted from the documentary.

In 2016, Brendan Dassey's conviction was overturned by a federal judge who deemed his confession, the sole piece of evidence against him, to have been illegally obtained. Nevertheless, Wisconsin authorities appealed to reinstate the conviction and were successful. Dassey attempted to appeal the reinstatement but in 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear it, leaving the overturned conviction in place.