During the holiday break I watched the new Netflix series Making a Murderer. As apparently did a lot of other people.The series has sparked petition drives to obtain pardons for Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, two men convicted of murder in rural Wisconsin.
At least in Avery’s case, these petition efforts are misguided. The folks bugging Barack Obama about this should understand that the President doesn’t have authority to pardon state prisoners. The folks bugging Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker about it … well, I’m guessing that’s a non-starter. Walker strikes me as Wisconsin’s version of Kansas Governor Sam Brownback. If the comparison is apt, there will be no mercy from that quarter (unless the Averys are secretly billionaires and have cleverly concealed it).
However, if Walker happened to be in the pardoning mood, he should issue one for Dassey. Unless something dramatic was omitted from the documentary, the guy was convicted almost solely by his own confession to law enforcement officers. Were I a juror in the case, I would have regarded the admissions dragged out of a mentally-impaired 16 year old as self-contradictory, coerced and worthless as evidence.
Avery is another matter altogether. Here’s what I think the evidence shows:
When he was 18, Avery burglarized a bar. He was convicted and spent 10 months in jail.
When he was 20, he poured gasoline on his family’s cat and threw it in a fire, burning it alive. He did prison time for animal cruelty. Early in the documentary he lies about the crime, claiming the cat’s death was accidental.
Three years later he was convicted of assaulting a female cousin with a shotgun. In the documentary he admits to the assault, though he claims the gun wasn’t loaded. Not that his cousin would have known that. Not that she wouldn’t have feared joining the family cat in the afterlife.
This evidence clearly establishes Avery as a violent man capable of complete indifference to the suffering of others and incapable of conforming his behavior to the requirements of the law. It also establishes his willingness to lie.
Though that might mitigate the amount of sympathy one ought to extend to him, it shouldn’t by itself be enough to convict him of other crimes.
Sadly, this principle was demonstrated when Avery spent 18 years behind bars for a rape he didn’t commit. Shoddy work by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department led to the conviction, which was overturned later when Avery was exonerated by DNA evidence. The tainted investigation was either the result of “round up the usual suspects” law enforcement or part of an ongoing family feud involving Avery and some members of the sheriff’s department.
On or around October 31, 2005, photographer Teresa Hallbach was murdered. She was employed by Auto Trader Magazine, and her last appointment of the day was a car photo assignment at the Avery family salvage yard. Steven Avery had an established pattern of specifically requesting Hallbach when he did business with Auto Trader. And Hallbach had asked not to be sent to the Avery property anymore, citing a previous incident in which he came to the door wearing nothing but a towel.
Nobody saw Hallbach alive after her appointment with Avery. Her bloodstained SUV was found parked on Avery’s property. Charred fragments of her bones were found in the ashes of a bonfire set by Avery on the evening of Hallbach’s disappearance.
For obvious reasons, Manitowoc deputies were supposed to be excluded from the murder investigation. But some participated in it nonetheless. Evidence strongly suggests that they planted the SUV’s key in Avery’s trailer and smeared Avery’s blood (obtained from an evidence file from a previous investigation) in the SUV itself.
Avery was clearly convicted based in part on tainted evidence. And that’s exactly why he shouldn’t receive a pardon. If he’s pardoned, he can’t be tried again for the crime. Both Avery and the people of Wisconsin deserve better than that.
Of course he isn’t entitled to a new trial. He had expensive, competent counsel during the first go-around (another benefit denied Dassey, who was tried separately). His lawyers challenged the validity of the evidence, so the jury had the opportunity to question it.
But in this particular case, a new trial would be a fascinating experience. Personally, I believe Avery would be convicted anew based on the non-tainted evidence from the investigation.
And if he happened to win acquittal, perhaps someone will make a ten hour long documentary about how broken the justice system is when it can’t keep a brutal killer like Avery behind bars.