Why Steven Avery Represents Everything That’s Wrong with the Criminal Justice System

Steven Avery

If you haven’t watched “Making a Murderer” on Netflix, you’re missing out. According to CNN, Steven Avery, the documentary protagonist, spent 18 years in prison after being falsely convicted of sexual assault. A Manitowoc, Wisconsin native, Avery was convicted of rape in 1985 and spent 18 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit. Penny Beerntsen, the rape victim, identified Avery from a photo lineup (with some assistance from authorities), and “a forensic examiner testified at the trial that a hair recovered from her shirt was consistent with Avery’s” (France). Avery was absolved from the crime after DNA evidence led investigators to Gregory Allen, a convicted felon who closely resembled Avery.

In 2003, Avery was released from prison and filed a lawsuit against Manitowoc County for wrongful conviction and imprisonment. The suit was settled for $400,000. Not even two years later, Avery was arrested again, this time for the the death of Teresa Halbach, a car photographer seen visiting the Avery family’s salvage yard. Curious enough, the same questionably-ethical police involved in Avery’s previously refuted crime were involved in the investigation of Halbach’s suspicious death.

The prosecutors argue that Halbach’s Toyota RAV4, which had Avery’s blood smeared next to the ignition, was discovered on the infamous family’s lot. Avery’s defense attorneys fought back against the prosecution by contending that the blood was planted by the Manitowoc county police. Their reasoning? A vial containing Avery’s blood from his previously disputed crime was found to be tampered with, causing Avery’s attorneys to question the strategic placement of the bodily fluid. In addition to the blood, tissue and bone fragments matching the victim’s DNA profile were found outside Avery’s mobile home. Again, Avery’s attorneys question whether the tissue and bone fragments were planted in order to strengthen the argument of the dubious blood smear in Halbach’s car.

To make matters worse, Brendan Dassey, the wrongfully convicted criminal’s minor nephew, falsely confessed to authorities that he helped Avery rape and kill the doomed photographer. Dassey was described in the documentary as a teenager with a below average IQ, who, as shown in his confession tapes revealed during Dassey’s trial, was manipulated into telling the terrorizing cops what they wanted to hear. When I saw the tapes, I felt anger; anger that Dassey was taken advantage of and angry that the prosecution told jurors that Dassey explicitly described his and Avery’s supposed crime in great detail.

People who advocate for Dassey’s release suggest that his confession was “coerced and should never have been allowed into evidence” (Blevins). In the confession tape, Dassey is seen slumped over on a couch, barely making eye contact with the investigators. His answers are short with little enunciation as he mumbles under his breath. As Dassey struggles to respond to the intimidating cops, the manipulative adults begin to play “good cop, bad cop” by telling Dassey that they will support him is he is forthright with them. However, the investigators make sure to reiterate to Dassey multiple times that they “already know everything that happened” in an effort to convince the scared minor to tell them only what they want to hear. Even after the confession takes place, Dassey is seen calling his mom and panicking about the falsely told admission, admitting to her that the cops had gotten to him.

13 years after Avery’s fate was decided by a faulty and corrupt criminal justice system, both Avery and Dassey were sentenced to life in prison and remain behind bars to this day.

Outraged by the revealing documentary, audiences created a petition asking President Obama to pardon Avery and Dassey. According to ABC News, “more than 125,000 signed the petition, exceeding the 100,000 needed to trigger a response.” However, audiences received an unsettling reply. According to the White House, “because Avery and Dassey were convicted in state criminal court, the president does not have the power to pardon them.” However, a representative from the White House said online that “While this case is out of the Administration’s purview, President Obama is committed to restoring the sense of fairness at the heart of our justice system.”

The president needs to do much more than restore the sense of fairness in the corrupt system. According to the Innocence Project, “there have been 337 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States” and only “71 percent of the people exonerated through DNA testing have been financially compensated.” Worse yet, “22 percent of cases were closed because of lost or destroyed evidence.” Twenty-two percent is a large number of people who never saw justice; who never got to live a life outside of the criminal justice system, and who never will unless serious changes take place.

Steven Avery is only one of many sad stories of wrongfully convicted criminals. Consider, for example, Rafael Suarez . According to an article by the Washington Post, 19 years ago, “Suarez was convicted of a vicious felony assault for which another man had already pleaded guilty.” All witnesses who could have truthfully told the court that Suarez was not involved in the assault, but rather tried to stop it, were not called to testify at the trial. As a result, Suarez was sentenced to five years in prison.

In 2000, when all of these crucial facts came to light, the wrongfully convicted criminal was released from prison. Homeless, jobless and divorced, the future looked grim for Suarez. He sued his former lawyer, who by then had been disbarred, and received a $1 million judgment; money he never pocketed since his lawyer “had no assets and filed for bankruptcy.”

As Samuel R. Gross states in the article, “the most depressing thing about Suarez’s case is how comparatively lucky he was.” Against all odds, Suarez was liberated because his otherwise unaccountable lawyer had recorded interviews with the essential witnesses, despite failing to later request their testimony at the trial.

According to the article, “the average time served for the 1,625 exonerated individuals in the registry is more than nine years.” Suarez, on the other hand, only served three. I don’t say “only” to downplay Suarez’s unfortunate situation, but rather to shed light on the fact that for many wrongfully convicted criminals, 3 years is nothing compared to the 5+ years many are forced to spend behind bars.

Is there any hope for Steven Avery? According to Fox 11 News, as of January 8, 2016, Avery has a new attorney, Kathleen T. Zellner. As it says on the attorney’s website, “in 20 years, Kathleen T. Zellner has righted more wrongful convictions than any private attorney in America.” Will Zellner be the person to finally put Avery out of his misery? I guess we’ll have to wait and see; just as Avery is doing right now in his secluded prison cell, hoping for justice to be served. As Voltaire once said, “It is better to risk saving a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one.”  


Photo Credit Left & Right
Photo Credit Center (Associated Press)