Steven Avery is an American citizen who was wrongfully convicted in 1985 for sexual assault and attempted murder and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was charged by the Manitowoc County in the State of Wisconsin for the offense committed on a woman named Penny Beerntsen.
A miscarriage of justice
The woman was mercilessly assaulted and sexually attacked whilst jogging on the shores of Lake Michigan. Avery who had a criminal record before this incident caught the eye of the Manitowoc County Sheriff Thomas Kocourek. Avery had a water tight alibi that he was 40 miles away, at Green bay just minutes after the assault. It was backed by 16 witnesses and a time stamped store receipt.
There was no way he could have committed the offense and got there so soon, unless of course he had wings, but still the judge convicted him on the sole evidence that was available. The victim had picked him up from a photograph shown of sexual offenders they had in file. Then later at a line up, she pointed out to him as the one who attacked her and sexually assaulted her. This sole piece of evidence was good enough for the judge who did not consider the fact that he was 40 miles away at the time of the attack.
He had spent 18 years of his prison term when a detective attached to Brown County in the same state called the county jail in Manitowoc and disclosed that a man they had arrested had admitted to the Penny Beerntsen offense. He had also stated that someone else was in jail for it and that was Steven Avery.
Though DNA testing was absent in 1985 semen and blood samples from the Penny Beerntsen attack were kept in custody as evidence. When the authorities tested it they realized that it matched with Gregory Allen’s who had confessed to the crime.
Steven Avery was exonerated and released on September 11, 2003.
This incident reflected badly on the American justice system because it took 8 years after the first call was made to the Manitowoc county jail that Gregory Allen had confessed to the assault on Penny Beerntsen. This and the wrongful conviction caused quite a media and citizens uproar in the justice system of the United States in general and the State of Wisconsin in particular.
The Steven Avery Bill
Steven Avery’s 18 years spent in jail for a crime that he did not commit brought out a blitz of media coverage that shook the pillars of the American justice system. Avery had gone through the justice system to prove his innocence but to no avail. Two higher courts had turned down the initial appeal. What made them to ignore such a very strong alibi, especially backed by 16 witnesses and the time stamped receipt, only God would know!
The Steven Avery wrongful conviction prompted Rep. Mark Gundrum, the Chairman of the Wisconsin Assembly Judiciary committee to appoint a bipartisan task force. It had the mandate to inquire into the flaws in the state’s judicial system and recommend improvements to ensure that nothing like the Avery incident occurs again.
The result of the extensive findings of the task force brought out the Criminal Justice Reform Bill which was popularly referred to as the “Avery Bill”, which was signed into law in October 2005.
Steven Avery’s civil suit
Once released Steven Avery filed a civil suit against the Manitowoc County, former sheriff Thomas Kocourek, and the former district attorney Dennis Vogel claiming US $ 36 million for wrongful conviction.
Whilst the civil suit was being heard Steven Avery was arrested just two months after the “Avery Bill” was signed into law and this time on a murder charge. He was accused of killing and burning the body of photographer Teresa Halbach who was called by Avery to photograph his sister’s minivan that he wanted to sell.
Teresa had an appointment at his home on the day she disappeared on October 31, 2005 which was the premises of his Avery Auto Salvage. Investigators late found her car partially hidden in the premises and her car keys in his bedroom.
For this offense he was convicted on March 18, 2007 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and is still in prison at the Waupun Correctional Institution in Waupun, in the State of Wisconsin.
The civil suit was eventually settled out of court for a sum of US $ 400,000/=.
There were several anomalies in Steven Avery’s second conviction too and his attorney Kathleen Zellner filed several appeals extending up to the Supreme Court of Wisconsin citing various issues but they were all turned down.
Kathleen Zellner was convinced that this conviction too based on the evidence submitted was riddled with holes and she prepared a 1,272 page post-conviction motion citing several anomalies, on June 7, 2017. She went to the extremes of citing that the evidence was planted and that false testimony was recorded in court.
After deliberations her appeal for a re-trial was turned down on October 3, 2017.
Steven Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey was also charged as an accomplice in the Teresa Halbach murder and the sole evidence against him was a confession which was later denied by him. He claimed it was made under duress and that it was coerced from him and refused to testify at the trial.
He was charged for rape, murder and mutilation of a corpse in a separate trial and was convicted and he too remains in jail.
The Avery film
All the drama that unfolded in the courthouse and the events that preceded it and ones that followed were brought to life in a 10-episode original documentary by Nettflix released on December 18, 2015. Titled “Making a Murderer” a second series of the documentary was released on October 19, 2018.
These have set the cat among the pigeons and have ruffled many feathers. Nettflix is faced with many civil lawsuits prominently from the prosecutors of the time. It would be interesting to follow the outcome.