TV

More Than 200,000 Petition for Release of Making a Murderer Star Steven Avery

Can this Netflix docuseries right the wrongs perpetrated by a corrupt criminal justice system?

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Making a Murderer/Netflix

A "tragic lack of humility" in our criminal justice system sits at the heart of the new Netflix docuseries Making a Murderer. Released December 18, 2015, the 10-years-in-the-making show has taken almost no time to stir up public support for Steven Avery and his young nephew Brendan Dassey, with hopes of forcing the White House or Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to respond.

Avery, now 53, has spent the better part of his adult life in prison. The series picks up upon his 2003 release, after serving 18 years for the violent rape of a fellow resident of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin—a crime that DNA analysis impossible at the time of his 1985 conviction eventually shows Avery did not commit.

This wrongful rape conviction wasn't the result of some vengeful ex or whatever else stereotypes might conjure. A wealth of evidence suggests Avery was failed by the Manitowoc County Sheriff's Office's single-minded commitment to proving and maintaining his guilt. By fall 2005, Avery was in the midst of a major lawsuit against Manitowoc County, with individual liability at stake for various local officials.

That's when—spoilers ahead—he was arrested and charged for the murder of Teresa Halbach, a 25-year-old auto-mag photographer. Halbach had been by the Avery family junkyard to take pictures of a car there before disappearing and, eventually, having her cremated remains discovered behind Avery's trailer. The bulk of Making a Murderer involves the investigation and trials surrounding Halbach's death, in which Dassey, then 16, was also implicated. 

While the events of Making a Murderer may stem from extraordinary actions, the series' indictment of our criminal justice system spreads far beyond a few corrupt individuals. Near the end of the series, Dean Strang, one of Avery's two defense lawyers during his 2007 murder trial, speaks of the "tragic lack of humility of everyone who participates" in the system. It isn't just corrupt cops or ass-saving prosecutors who failed the Avery family but every judge, juror, court official, bureaucrat, member of the media, citizen of Manitowoc county, and anyone else who failed to allow, at so many steps of the way, that they or authority figures might just be wrong. 

Other notable things about the series: 

People are pissed—and officials might have to take note: The release of Making a Murder's has inspired thousands of people to sign onto petitions for Steven Avery's pardon. Both Avery and Dassey are currently serving life in prison for Halbach's murder.

Change.org petition to "Free Steven Avery" had garnered more than 200,000 signatures by the evening of January 4th and more than 20,000 people have signed a White House petition asking President Obama to pardon Avery and Dassey.* "If the government petition collects 100,000 signatures by January 16, then the White House has to respond publicly," Time reports. The president, however, cannot pardon people for state crimes

It highlights the role of mental illness and intellectual disability in matters of police misconduct: Making a Murderer highlights many, many deficiencies in America's criminal justice system, but one that sticks out most is the way law enforcement exploits individual vulnerabilities and limitations for easy convictions. Dassey is just 16 when he is interviewed by Manitowoc County cops several times in the absence of either his mother or a lawyer; the cops subsequently asserted that the mom had agreed her son could be interviewed alone, although she disputes this claim.

During his early experiences with law enforcement, even Dassey's lawyers treat him like little more than an asset in the state's case against Avery. You really just have to watch to believe the way detectives and lawyers lead Dassey to "confess" to heinous crimes, and how little Dassey comprehends the seriousness of what he's saying. But while Dassey's situation may seem extraordinary, minors are routinely interrogated about serious crimes without a lawyer or parent present. In an analysis  published in the journal Law and Human Behavior in 2014, none of 57 teens in 17 different areas had a lawyer present during interrogations, and only 12 teens had a parent around.

(Though the circumstances are way different, Dassey's treatment reminded me of another recent miscarriage of justice as a result of police pressure on vulnerable teens, which ProPublica and The Marshall Project tell exquisitely here.) 

Dassey and Avery's lower-than-average IQs are also relevant. Steven Avery had an IQ of 70, which falls into the "borderline deficiency" range and just above the threshold to be labeled intellectually disabled. His nephew, Brendan Dassey, also had severely below-average intelligence, poor social skills, and limited reasoning ability. Low-IQ, mentally ill, or generally "neuroatypical" people are frequent targets of police violence—about one in four Americans fatally shot by police last year were mentally ill, according to the report released in December by the Treatment Advocacy Center—and of suspicion and conviction for crimes they didn't commit. 

In cases where DNA evidence has exonerated people, roughly 30 percent involve false confessions, according to the Innocence Project. In many of these cases, the suspect was someone of questionable intelligence who seemed unaware of the seriousness of their situation. But as Dassey's case makes clear, once given, a confession holds more weight than recanting it hundreds of times. 

Events like those in Making a Murderer aren't all that rare: The Center for Prosecutor Integrity estimates that 43 percent of wrongful convictions result from misconduct involving prosecutors and other law-enforcement officials. And even when exposed, state wrongdoers receive little sanction. Of more than 3,000 cases of prosecutorial misconduct at the state and federal level over the past 50 years, sanctions were imposed less than 2 percent of the time. 

* Updated to reflect increase in petition signers.

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53 responses to “More Than 200,000 Petition for Release of Making a Murderer Star Steven Avery

  1. Online petitions are by far the worst things to have entered society in the past few years of the culture wars. They’re even worse than #hashtagactivism.

    1. This is 100% without a doubt Lt James Lenk huffing and puffing over these petitions. We’re on to you man.

  2. Released December 18, 2015, the 10-years-in-the-making show has taken almost no time to stir up public support…

    It’s taken a decade, apparently.

  3. corrupt criminal justice system

    I thought corruption makes us freer?

    Halbach had been by the Avery family junkyard to take pictures of a car there before disappearing and, eventually, having her cremated remains discovered behind Avery’s trailer.

    Um…

    Other notable things about the series:

    What is this, a lecture?

  4. This is a very well-constructed series, and highlights the issues with the Reid interrogation technique. A good watch.

    Mrs. Chin, who is very very progressive, was outraged. Me, being accustomed to nut-punches from the early Balko days, could only nod sadly.

  5. …anyone else who failed to allow, at so many steps of the way, that they or authority figures might just be wrong.

    So many worlds would be rocked if people found out that the halls of power are occupied by people just like themselves.

    1. Or if those in those halls were held personally accountable for their actions.

  6. Dassey and Avery’s lower-than-average IQs are also relevant. Steven Avery had an IQ of 70, which falls into the “borderline deficiency” range and just above the threshold to be labeled intellectually disabled. His nephew, Brendan Dassey, also had severely below-average intelligence, poor social skills, and limited reasoning ability.

    These are cops. Are you going to tell me that the cops are able to manipulate people smarter than they are?

    1. 70?!??!

      I agree that that makes these cats borderline outliers. Borderline geniuses in Wisconsin.

      /smug-minnesodan

    2. That was incredibly painful to watch. The cops heavily implied or outright said that if Dassey tells them what they want to hear (i.e., confess to rape and murder), that he’ll get to go home and everything will be OK.

      Cops should be required to tell every interviewee that their job is to attempt to screw them over as much as they possibly can.

      1. And you want to give them expanded powers on back ground checks for the ‘mentally ill’. All I see down the road is the government stiffing the mentally ill and making them ‘scapegoats’ left, right, center and left again.

        I wouldn’t trust a bureaucrat or any kind of government official (especially law enforcement specifically because they can bank ambition tokens on the backs of the mentally ill) with the lives of people because for all their talk of compassion, the government lacks the most compassion.

        1. I should have opened that I agreed with your sentiment and that this kind of behavior is precisely why they need LESS power; not more of it. Cops don’t want to be bothered with understanding how to deal with the mentally ill.

        2. But that’s different because gunzzz!!

          /TonyDerp

      2. Not entirely different from what the Fed Gov did to the Hammonds and you probably want to firebomb their supporters.

        1. Yea well, that’s deifferent !!1!1

    3. And a major part of the Hammonds’ bullshit convictions in Oregon was due to a mentally deficient nephew telling the popo whatever they wanted to make him say. But I don’t expect proggie outrage there.

      1. Of course not. They’re evil ranchers destroying the environment and the Bureau of Land Management is heroically rescuing the land from devastation. (Pardon me while I vomit)

  7. Do they have woodchippers in Calumet County?

  8. It isn’t just corrupt cops or ass-saving prosecutors who failed the Avery family but every judge, juror, court official, bureaucrat, member of the media, citizen of Manitowoc county, and anyone else who failed to allow, at so many steps of the way, that they or authority figures might just be wrong.

    Basically, you just described a very sizable portion of humanity. Libertarians are a very small fringe. Most people don’t give a fuck about anyone else’s rights or life. As I’ve said before, most of your neighbors are sociopaths, who would gladly watch you hauled off to the gulags without objection if it didn’t affect them in any way.

    1. People are very rational in practical matters. When your only practical choice is to bow down when other people steer the system to bash you, or to steer it yourself to bash others, rational people will choose to bash others. Most people would rather leave others alone, but coercive government doesn’t allow that option.

      I bet if every elected office had “none of the above” which meant you literally would not be affected by government at all, neither taxed, policed, nor welfared, a whole lot of districts would vote that way. The key would be leaving it absolutely alone. Some small county district would go first, and when chaos did not result, other county districts would follow suit. County only; state and federal agents would make all the trouble they could, because they would still have normal control. But as chaos did not result, additional county districts would repeat the experiment, and eventually a state district would follow, which would really get attention and panic the feds.

      But we’ll never get that chance. Even if it were somehow adopted as a Constitutional amendment, the Supreme Court would be quick to interpret it into oblivion like the 9th, 10th, and 14th amendments.

  9. Steven Avery had an IQ of 70.

    The good people at Reason might not take much from this, but John Philippe Rushton was sure that a person with a 70 IQ could maintain and operate a Kalashnikov rifle.

    1. Moron. You’re IQ must be in the teens if you think the reason why the IQ was brought up had anything at all to do with whether or not they could operate a firearm. Any asshole with a gun can kill people idiots with guns is why people are dying all the time. The intelligence issue was brought up to explain why Brendan Dassey would give a false confession when pressured by law enforcement. Which in his defense I’m sure quite a few teenagers would under those circumstances. But in this case his lack of intelligence certainly didn’t help in the situation as he had really no idea of the repercussions when providing his statement.

  10. I stayed up an entire night watching this. Required viewing for anyone concerned with how fucked up local law enforcement (and the American system in general) is. Nut punch after nut punch. With any luck, more than just calls to pardon Avery will come of it. Strang’s “humility” line was a profoundly good characterization of why our system fails so often. One thing that really got to me was how the family of the victim (or at least that douchey brother spokesman) was so certain that the right guy had been caught. It wasn’t even a question in their mind, not even after being shown hundreds of reasons for reasonable doubt. They trusted law enforcement that blindly, and they had every reason to–it usually tries to fuck with the poor and ignorant if it can help it.

    1. Did you think that those privileged white dudes might also be conservatives or even worse, libertarians? Why should we care about them?

      1. I thought this is the fault of libertarians for causing local government to lack funds?

        1. Everything is our fault since we control the media, academia, and all of government. When you’re this powerful, you have to accept the blame.

          1. If I had to pinpoint an ideological source for the attitude that allows this system to perpetuate, and I’d prefer not to because I think it’s more complex than that, I’d go with Reaganism. Which is distinct from real libertarians. For them, “small government” was euphemistic horseshit in service of building this very system of cop worship and scapegoating of undesirables. Libertarians are just the few idiots who seriously bought the rhetoric at face value.

            1. “…I’d go with Reaganism.”

              Of course you would; you’re an ignoramus.

              1. Nothing says small government like a HUUUUUUGGGGGEEEEE criminal justice system that is empowered by a billion bullshit feel good laws.

              2. It’s knida funny to watch Tony act like he cares about people .

                Especially non proggie protected classes.

            2. “Reaganism,” if you mean what I think you mean, is certainly responsible. But progressives’ desire to hold state officials with the least amount of accountability as possible is also responsible.

            3. Tony still clueless, news at 11.

            4. No, Tony, it’s coercive government which is allowed to define its own limits. Imagine how fucked we’d all be if criminals could define what is illegal — well, that is government in a nutshell. They ARE allowed to define their own limits; and that brings to life the old aphorism that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

              Tony, Tony, Tony — it’s incredibly simple. If kindergartners ran schools — if burglars defined burglary — if health and safety inspectors defined what was unhealthy — if the Army Corps of Engineers decided what their limits were — how many more examples do you need?

              Any government powerful enough to give you what you want is powerful enough to take what it wants. Why is that so hard to understand? You’ve got hundreds, nay thousands, of years of examples, not a single counter-example.

            5. Yeah, I remember, back before the Reagan administration.

              No one was convicted of a crime they didn’t commit.

              In fact, city and state governments barely existed, if at all.

              The next thing you know Reagan’s president.

              Next thing you know, some state like Colorado goes nuts, gives gay people special rights, and a poor wedding cake baker is punished.

              That’s when all this dog whistle racism, small government bullshit started: 1981.

              It’s in the history books. Look it up.

    2. Strang’s “humility” line was the best part of the documentary. It immediately brought to mind another quote about humility: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

    3. You trust government blindly, and want lots more of it. What’s the difference?

    4. Sorry, I can’t agree with you. Most people in fact do not want to leave other people alone. In fact, they are obsessed with not leaving other people alone. Did government create home owner’s associations?

      1. The very existence of police powers is what made home owner associations even possible.

        People mess with everyone else as a defensive measure; if they don’t push the government away from themselves, others will, and government cannot be rejected, so when one person pushes it away, it steers towards others. That is why it appears that everyone likes messing with everyone else.

        I have known many people who say “There oughta be a law” or “They should be taken out and shot”, but none have actually meant it, literally; they have just been showing their disgust. Yes, there are some control freaks who enjoy bossing other people around, and I have known some, but most people have plenty to do with their own lives without taking time to mess with other people.

        Coercive government is the issue, nothing else; it is the root of all police powers and all coercive evil.

  11. Episode 3 (where they interview Dassey) is shocking and disgusting.
    Everyone should recognize how dangerous this type of interrogation is. Check out the results of this study by the University of British Columbia:
    http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/…..-1.3326896
    http://news.ubc.ca/2015/11/18/…..-of-crime/

  12. It’s yet another reminder how powerful pop culture can be. And, when wielded effectively during an election cycle, anything can happen as a result. Twice.

  13. A friend asked my thoughts on Avery’s guilt: I said I thought it was about 86% that he was guilty of murder, and 96% that the cops were guilty of malfeasance.

    Evidence ‘Making a Murderer’ DIdn’t Present in Steven Avery’s Murder Case

    1. This. I’m pretty sure he probably did it, but that doesn’t excuse the cops doing all that they did. The real story of this documentary though, what’s really pissing off the masses, is how the kid was railroaded. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s actually a lasting impact from that.

  14. I haven’t watched the doc, but I remember when this was happening, and all of this stuff was talked about in the local media. There was even speculation at the start that it may have been a vendetta because of his lawsuit. But, it all still came out looking like he was guilty. Maybe he wasn’t. But the outcome wasn’t due to lack of a dialogue among the community about the facts of the case.

    I rarely watch documentaries that are made to support an opinion from the get go, because film is such a one-sided ‘dialogue’ it’s easy to only present one’s own bias.

  15. F all y’all. I’m still waiting for movement on my Blackfish petition.

  16. While only related tangentially, this is a good time and place to share “Don’t Talk to the Police”, an excellent lecture by Regent Law Professor James Duane. https://youtu.be/d-7o9xYp7eE

  17. As a resident of Calumet County, I remember the news stories about him getting out of prison and I thought, “Wow. That’s amazing. How great it must feel to be free after being wrongfully convicted. He’s going to get a lawyer, a settlement, and he’ll be set for the rest of his life.”

    Then I remember the news stories about the Halbach case, and I thought, “How could he fuck this up?”

    Local law enforcement and Stephen Avery are both loser in this. Avery a murderer and local LE a bunch of power-wielding thugs.

    It’s all very sad, really.

    1. It certainly doesn’t surprise me that you’re from Calumet County. Only a simple minded person would think Avery did it AND the law enforcement are “power wielding thugs.” After completing the documentary I was absolutely appalled at the verdicts these jurys were coming back with. I was thinking how could they be so stupid not to see through all the police bullshit. After reading your comment it makes a lot of sense to me. These trials desperately needed a change of venue so they could get some normal educated jurors that could see that they were being played as well as understand what they were looking at and come up with a verdict that actually made sense.

  18. The sad thing about this to me is all the people posting links to the ’13 things the film left out’ which is actually only a list of 11 since 2 of the things ‘left out’ appeared inside of three episodes.

    It’s sad because IT DOESN’T MATTER. The behavior of law enforcement in any sane legal world would have been the dismissal of charges against Dassey and at the least a re-trial for Avery.

    The fact that Dassey’s own lawyer was demonstrably working with the prosecution to ensure the convictions of both parties is enough by itself to warrant a mistrial. The fact that it was not granted is disgusting and anathema to the legal system in any state.

    Even if the facts allegedly omitted are all true, there is no basis to ignore the misdeeds of law enforcement and others to cause retrials at the minimum. The whole series highlights severe and absurd miscarriages of justice.

    1. Thank god there is someone in here making sense.

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