I am obviously a bit late to the party on posting about Making a Murderer, but I felt I needed to compile my thoughts into one place. I recently watched the entire series again, and I have collected my analysis below. Spoilers follow, so if you need the suspense of not knowing what happens as you watch the show, stop reading.
Let me preface my analysis of the series and the Avery and Dassey cases by disclosing my personal understandings, biases, and assumptions about the law, law enforcement, and where we are as a society.
- I believe that police officers and members of the criminal justice system are, by and large, decent and honorable public servants. I will generally give them the benefit of the doubt absent any evidence to the contrary. I have personally witnessed abhorrent and unethical behavior by police officers, but those couple incidents were the exceptions rather than the rule. There are bad apples in every barrel.
- My political views are generally libertarian. Where I part ways with libertarians is in my views on international geopolitics, national security, and criminal justice. Most would call my views on these topics “conservative.” I believe most libertarians are a bit naive and overly idealistic when it comes to these areas. When it comes to criminal justice, I definitely want to “throw the book” at a criminal if there is overwhelming certainty in that criminal’s guilt. However, I am a strong believer in the system and due process. I believe the damage to society is greater to convict an innocent person than potentially let a guilty person go free.
- It is clear from the debate over Making a Murderer that most Americans really do not understand how the system is supposed to work. The words innocent and guilty are, in particular, heavily misunderstood. There is only “guilty” and “not guilty” under the law. If one is found not guilty, the legal system is merely acknowledging that a reasonable doubt exists as to the defendant’s guilt. It is not actually an acknowledgement of innocence. It is possible to find a defendant not guilty even if you actually think he or she committed the crime.
- There is no such thing as proof. There is merely strong evidence in favor of a verdict, theory, or idea. The concept of proof is reserved for those with no sense of humility, which leads us to…
- “Lack of Humility” is the name of one of the episodes of the series. It is a reference to one of the comments Dean Strang makes during that episode. He hit the nail right on the head. This stunning lack of humility goes much further than law enforcement in this case. It is a larger problem with our culture and politics today. There is a level of certainty and lack of humility that pervades our national conversation. Everyone is so certain they are correct or that their political and other views are valid and operative. I may think my world view is pretty solid and accurate, but I have the humility to concede that I don’t have all the answers. I don’t have all the information I need or want. I may be wrong. Our internet-fueled culture promotes this lack of willingness to seriously consider other views and concede someone else may be right.
- I can understand how a community can come to be biased and prejudicial against a family or individual. Steven Avery and family might have avoided some of the trouble in which they have found themselves by not making a nuisance of themselves to the community. They probably did need to be removed from the gene pool, as Len Kachinsky’s investigator wrote in an email. But this is not Nazi Germany. Dirty, dim-witted, inbred rednecks have every right to live their lives provided they don’t commit serious crimes. In fact, this is probably the only nation on earth where that is true.
- Lastly, I do not have a law degree nor have I ever served in law enforcement. My understanding of the criminal justice system comes from observation, extensive reading, talking to police officers and detectives, and my experience serving on a jury in a criminal trial wherein we acquitted the defendant. Some of my assumptions and understandings might be wrong, and I welcome comments that refute any of my analysis. However, I did discuss the Avery and Dassey cases at length with a police detective I know and respect, and his analysis was nearly identical to my own. He called the entire situation “a tragedy and stain on the good name of law enforcement.”
Now that my views, biases, and basic understandings are clear, let’s delve into the analysis. I’ll start with this summary of my opinion of the case. I’ll follow this with a breakdown of the theories of what actually happened and how the evidence ties in to them. I’ll then address the evidence that is not covered in the series that may have swayed the jury one way or another – this is the main defense being offered by those who believe Avery and Dassey’s convictions were justified. Lastly, I’ll provide a few thoughts on the clever ways the filmmakers structured the narrative and whether their treatment of all parties was fair.
My Statement of Opinion on the Cases
I believe it is probable that Steven Avery had some involvement in the disappearance and/or murder of Teresa Halbach. I highly doubt Brendan Dassey had anything to do with it. I believe the investigation was flawed from the very beginning – there was clear tunnel vision in focusing immediately on Avery as the prime suspect when there seemed to be more obvious leads pointing to other suspects. The failure to investigate and rule out other suspects had breathtaking consequences for the investigation itself and thus how the case was prosecuted and defended (given Wisconsin’s third party liability law). I believe it is possible Avery might have been framed, but I do not believe law enforcement necessarily framed him. There was ample opportunity for anyone in that community to plant evidence. The press conference conducted by prosecutor Ken Kratz made it impossible for Avery and Dassey to get a fair trial. The coercive nature of Dassey’s confession and his inept initial representation should have been grounds for mistrials in both cases. I believe neither Avery nor Dassey should have been convicted based on the flawed, tainted, and otherwise specious evidence provided by the State in this case. There was more than a reasonable doubt sown by the defense in both trials. I believe both Avery and Dassey should have new trials and/or have their convictions vacated by Federal courts based solely on a clear failure of the process. If Teresa Halbach was, in fact, murdered, I would like to see her actual killer (which may very well be Steven Avery) brought to justice with a much higher degree of certainty for the sake of her memory, her family’s piece of mind, and the community’s safety.
Phew! That’s a mouthful! Let’s move on to all the pieces that helped me assemble my opinion.
Theories – What Actually Happened to Teresa Halbach?
First, let’s apply Occam’s razor to all of the current theories on what might have happened. Occam’s razor dictates that, all else being equal, the simplest explanation is the most likely. The key here is to ask oneself, “Which of these is the most plausible or likely?” I have these ranked in order from most likely (simplest) to least likely (most complex) in my mind. What do you think?
- Avery killed her in a manner inconsistent with any physical evidence (or there was none), and someone else planted evidence to frame him. “Someone else” in all these scenarios could include any of the following from most to least plausible. The Wrap has more details about each – I won’t go into much detail here. I’ll mention these in the longer analysis.
- Ryan Hillegas, the roommate, and/or Mike Halbach
- Scott Tadych and Bobby Dassey
- The other Avery brothers
- The guy in Arizona
- Edward Wayne Edwards
- A guy from Bonduel
- Some other random person with motive and opportunity
- Someone else killed her and framed Avery.
- She committed suicide and someone else framed Avery.
- Avery killed her in a manner inconsistent with any physical evidence, and law enforcement planted evidence to ensure a conviction. In this and all other law enforcement framing or murder scenarios, framing Avery solves a huge problem for Manitowoc County and some of the Sheriff’s Deputies who could lose their jobs and/or pensions due to the lawsuit.
- Someone else killed her and law enforcement framed Avery.
- She committed suicide and law enforcement framed Avery.
- Law enforcement killed her and framed Avery.
- She isn’t dead – she either wanted to disappear or was kidnapped – and she, someone else, and/or law enforcement framed Avery.
- Avery killed her, but in a manner not consistent with Dassey’s confession. Avery expertly removes most evidence, but somehow leaves just enough of his DNA on the Rav4 and the key fob. He expertly cleans everything in the garage but inexplicably leaves the bullet with Halbach’s DNA on it.
- Avery was about to get the large settlement from the State and had a decent shot at a large settlement from Manitowoc County, but he decides to risk that all and, in a fit of obsessive sexual desire, rapes and murders Teresa Halbach in a manner consistent with Dassey’s confession. He and Dassey channel Dexter and manage to expertly remove all DNA evidence (blood, semen, hair, etc.) of this horrific scene from the trailer where it supposedly took place, but somehow do not crush or otherwise clean up the Rav4 and leave it sitting in plain sight on the property. They somehow shoot Halbach in a way that spatter does not exist anywhere in the trailer or garage, but somehow trace DNA matching her profile is found on an expended bullet in the garage after numerous searches turned up nothing. Avery then manages to clean all of her DNA off the infamous key fob while leaving some of his own in the process. They manage to burn her body in a burn pit at a temperature only possible in an industrial furnace, and somehow some of her bones end up in a quarry. After doing such a good job cleaning up so much evidence, they leave the bones in plain sight in the burn pit and burn barrel to be easily discovered.
Let’s take a look at each of these in appropriate detail.
Avery killed her in a manner inconsistent with the physical evidence presented at trial and/or the Dassey confession and was framed by someone else.
This section is where I will point out the various observations and tidbits that might point to a third party being involved. I still think Avery being framed by someone other than law enforcement is the most likely situation, regardless of whether he actually killed her.
Maybe he followed her off his property and killed her elsewhere, such as on the side of the road. Someone discovers her body near her car, and now they have everything they need to complete the frame. It might explain why his blood and DNA was found in the car. Maybe she put up a struggle and he did get cut.
However, Avery is a filthy man, and his DNA is surely easy to obtain on his property. I bet there is even a bloody rag somewhere in the trailer from that recent cut he had on his hand (a little rubbing alcohol or distilled water would reconstitute it). The so-called “sweat DNA” would be easy enough to create. First of all, there is no DNA in sweat. There may have been evidence of sweat (nitrogen, salts, etc.) coupled with epithelial cells that came off with the sweat. However, that could easily be faked by just wetting a shirt Avery had worn and rubbing it on that spot. That would transfer some of the salts and nitrogen as well as some epithelial cells.
Regardless of whether Avery actually killed Halbach and was framed or whether he was just framed, all of the above still doesn’t fit with the prosecution’s narrative. Whether the evidence was in and on the car or was planted in this scenario, this now requires someone moving the car to the property, burning the body and placing it in the various locations the bones were found, planting the key in the trailer, and planting the bullet in the garage. Numerous third parties had opportunity to do all these things. There was plenty of time for any of this before the property was cordoned off by law enforcement. The site itself was not secure, with spotty logs of who entered and exited. Numerous days passed during the initial searches. Moreover, the key and bullet were only found after repeated searches after the property was released back to the family. Anyone could have planted both those items between the searches.
So who might have planted this evidence or killed Halbach? Let’s look at the people I mentioned above.
- Ryan Hillegas – Watching him was fascinating. When is an ex this involved in someone’s life or family unless they are a stalker or otherwise obsessed? Guessing someone’s voicemail password? Give me a break. Practically pointing those ladies right to where the Rav4 was on the Avery property and giving them a camera? This could all be legit, but it is all a bit too convenient. What do cops always say when a man or woman is killed? 90% of the time, it is a current or former spouse or lover. This guy should have been the first person that was investigated.
- The roommate – Not reporting her missing for a few days is weird.
- Mike Halbach – I only included him as fairly probable because he seemed so tight with Hillegas. I don’t know about you, but I am not really on speaking terms with most of my sisters’ exes. They are usually exes for a good reason. That in itself is odd. Were they friends before he dated Teresa? Did they meet through Mike? Those would be the only explanations that make his prominence not odd and creepy. The other item that is off Mike is when he talked about starting the grieving process when she was only known to be missing. Way to be positive, bro! Unless he knew something they didn’t… Lastly, he always seemed way too sure that law enforcement had this covered. I would want the truth, not just the appearance of finding the truth.
- Scott Tadych, Bobby Dassey, or the other Avery brothers – I lump these all together, because, collectively, they all seemed to tell very inconsistent stories or were just strange. Maybe that can be chalked up to the overall stupidity, awkwardness, and inbred nature of this whole clan. But maybe not. Bobby Dassey’s testimony was directly refuted by the testimony of the school bus driver. That seemed like it should have been a bigger deal. His testimony about the joke further questions the veracity of any of his testimony.
- Some guy in Arizona – Avery’s new lawyer seems fixated on someone Halbach called a couple times before her disappearance. He was recently arrested in Arizona for sex crimes. He was apparently in the area when all this took place.
- Edward Wayne Edwards or the guy from Bonduel – Apparently the MO of serial killer Edward Wayne Edwards is to kill people and frame someone else for it, all while watching the circus play out in real time. Apparently he lived fairly close to the area at the time of these events and he may have appeared on film in the background of a shot during the show. A former FBI agent posited that theory. Apparently a woman from Bonduel (nearby town) thought her husband had been involved and posted about it. The nature of some of the details seemed plausible. In both cases, these men could have simply helped get Avery caught and framed.
Someone else killed her and framed Avery.
This theory is mostly covered above, with the only difference being the idea that Avery was not involved at all. I’ve discussed how most or all of the evidence could have been planted. I want to reiterate the one thing I don’t see discussed anywhere. If one has access to a living space, there are any number of ways to obtain and plant DNA. A person’s clothing, underwear, bedclothes, and many other surfaces can contain blood, semen, sweat residue and epithelial cells, hair, cheek cells that were sloughed off in saliva, etc. All one needs is saline solution, distilled water, or rubbing alcohol to reconstitute any of these items in dried form. Simply brushing the key fob against one of Avery’s bedsheets would have transferred some DNA to it. If anyone has more technical details I am missing, I would love to hear them. Is my understanding of this correct? I believe it to be so because I watched Dexter (nooge!).
It is pretty easy to explain how every piece of physical evidence could have been planted if you understand what I detailed above. Halbach’s DNA would have been all over the Rav4, and Avery’s DNA would have been all over the trailer and other spaces. Just rubbing any of these items against a surface in the car or trailer would be enough to get trace amounts of DNA on the key fob, the bullet, and then allow other transfers to the inside of the car and the hood latch. Swabbing these surfaces would get samples that could then be transferred to other surfaces. This is not rocket science. And this is all not counting the testimony of the contaminated sample at the crime lab or the tech not changing gloves when looking at the hood latch. The biggest red flag, however, was the lack of Halbach’s DNA on the key fob. That is frankly impossible without being thoroughly cleaned by someone who wanted that DNA removed. Of course Avery’s DNA is on it because it is sitting on his dirty floor when “found.”
The only part of this theory that is difficult is figuring out a motive. The mysterious phone calls her co-worker testified about seem to indicate that someone was bothering and/or stalking her. Was this Hillegas? Was this the guy in Arizona? Who erased her voicemails if she wasn’t still alive and able to do it?
She committed suicide and someone else framed Avery.
This theory is closely related to the previous theory. The only difference is that this takes into account some of the strange things about her situation prior to the disappearance. The video clip that was played early in Episode 2 was chilling and strange. She talked about what would happen if she were to die, and it did not sound like idle banter. When I watched that, my first thought was that she was having suicidal thoughts and expected to find out later in the series that she did kill herself. The pestering phone calls she was ignoring play into this theory as well. Maybe that was driving her insane. Maybe Hillegas was the one who broke things off and she was obsessed with him or vice versa. Maybe she ODs on some pills in her car. Someone finds her and doesn’t want her memory tainted by suicide. “Let’s make it look like Avery killed her.” Hillegas, her brother, or her roommate would all be plausible suspects in this scenario.
Avery killed her, someone else killed her, or she killed herself and law enforcement framed Avery or planted evidence to secure a conviction.
There are a number of pieces of this puzzle that are certainly plausible. Only Manitowoc County law enforcement had clear and obvious motive to frame Avery or plant evidence. The problem with MC Sheriff deputies being involved directly when they were supposed to have recused themselves is that all evidence gathered is automatically suspect. Especially since Det. Lenk was the one who actually found the key fob, which was the most damning piece of physical evidence. The jury was asked to believe that the initial investigators were either so inept or so blind as to not find that key fob on the numerous initial searches despite essentially tearing the trailer apart. So someone is either incompetent, blind, or a liar. Any one of those calls the evidence into question. As previously discussed, planting any or all of the physical evidence used in the case would have been fairly easy.
This is also why law enforcement normally cordons off a crime scene, performs a thorough search and investigation, and releases the scene back to the public and/or owners. Once the scene is released, any evidence gathered after that time should be considered highly suspect. The most important pieces of physical evidence were found after the scene was initially released.
Lastly, there are other strange items that point to some law enforcement complicity. The most obvious one is the phone call Sgt. Colburn made to dispatch asking about the Rav4’s license plate. The only logical conclusion one can draw from that phone call is that he was looking at the vehicle at the time. The timeline of that call does not match with any theories or physical evidence proffered by the prosecution.
Law enforcement killed her and framed Avery.
I find this theory pretty unlikely. This is partially because, as inexplicably and incredibly stated by the MC Sheriff, it would have just been easier to kill Avery if they really wanted him out of the picture. Killing him versus killing someone else and framing him would indeed be easier. They’d also be just as likely to get away with it. Ultimately, if one seriously subscribes to the possibility that MC law enforcement was somehow involved, it is much simpler to assume they would just wait for the perfect opportunity to frame him. A serious crime was bound to be committed in the county at some point.
She isn’t dead – she disappeared or was kidnapped and she, others, and/or law enforcement made it appear as though Avery murdered her.
I don’t think this theory is likely, but I believe it is possible. This is closely related to any of the suicide theories. Maybe she wanted to disappear. Maybe someone kidnapped her and wanted to make it look like she was dead. Either way, she could have cut off a finger or two, a kidnapper might have cut off more prominent limbs. This would explain the presence of a couple bones with tissue matching her DNA. Of course, it would not be that difficult to just plant some tissue on a few of those bones prior to or after burning. I am pretty sure that is possible. This would also explain that piece of evidence in all of the other scenarios. Ultimately, I still think it is possible she is still alive.
Avery killed her in a manner consistent with either the prosecution’s presented physical evidence or Dassey’s confession.
Again, I think the two scenarios are highly unlikely. This is mainly because of the lack of physical evidence to corroborate any of these stories. The story told to the jury in Avery’s case was not consistent with the physical evidence presented unless you believe Avery is a Dexter-like forensic mastermind. The prosecution in Dassey’s case stuck with the story from his confession which has virtually no plausible physical evidence to back it up. Either it didn’t happen or Avery and Dassey are both Dexter-like forensic experts and cleaned the crime scene perfectly. After that expert job they manage to forget the key fob and leave a bullet and her bones strewn about.
To me, the biggest issue here is that they were able to prosecute these two cases by essentially claiming two distinct narratives. After months of finding no physical evidence to link Avery to the crime, they apparently hear this story from a former cellmate of Avery describing a brutal rape and murder fantasy. We get it: Avery is an unsavory dude. I don’t think anyone denies that. Wiegert and Fassbender then coerce and feed this confession to Dassey based on that story. The confession is used as pretext to search the property again, when much of the physical evidence is collected. The press conference is held describing this horrific scene, thus ensuring an impartial jury will not be possible. When it turns out that Dassey will be a liability to the prosecution as his story keeps changing, they decide to drop all mention of the confession in the prosecution of Avery while having found evidence by using that confession. They then come back to the confession in a separate trial to convict Dassey, when there is hardly a shred of physical evidence to corroborate that confession. Basically, they pulled a bait and switch on the community. However, having separate juries ensured the tactic would work.
Trial testimony and evidence not presented in the series
So now that I have run through most of the prevailing theories and given most of my take on those, let’s look at the various items that were not presented or that have been otherwise controversial or updated since the series was released. Most of these are used by those who defend the convictions to argue that the jury had evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. I agree with Buting that the first three of these are not as significant as the prosecution makes them out to be.
- Complete transcript of Dassey confession – Some have argued that the filmmakers only presented us with the worst parts (including the climax) of the Dassey confession. I have read the entire transcript, and the whole thing is an unconscionable disgrace. Not once does Dassey offer any detail of the alleged crime without Wiegert or Fassbender first suggesting it or using it as part of a leading question. The few times he seems to offer information not previously fed to him, it is after repeatedly being told he was lying and that the investigators knew the truth. He was clearly searching for answers to try to earn validation and get the ordeal over with.
- The 3 phone calls and false name – Avery apparently called Halbach three times, the second two times using *67 to block caller ID. He also supposedly provided a false name to Auto Trader. The calls don’t help his case at all, but the first call was clearly on the up and up. The second call is a little suspicious, but the third call showed that it never connected or lasted 0 seconds, which was probably a butt dial/accidental redial. The “false name” he gave Auto Trader was his sister’s name, since the minivan being sold belonged to her. Possibly fishy, but it all seems like nothing to see here. Some, including the prosecution, argued that he lured Halbach to the property. She told co-workers that day she was heading to the property, so it is clear she was not “lured.”
- Whips and chains found – A lot of people need to be locked up if that is a crime. Moving on.
- Ex-fiancee Jodi Stachowski changes her story – Aside from any number of possible motives to inaccurately portray Avery as a monster in hindsight (stay in the limelight, book deals, etc.), this obviously does not look good for Avery. Again, we get it! He’s an unsavory dude. I don’t think anyone thinks he is a saint. He might have beat her and done other things to her, but that still does not mean he is guilty of murder.
- EDTA test results – EDTA is used as a preservative in many foods in addition to blood. I have read a number of articles talking about how the preservative itself can degrade in the elements and sunlight. Thus, it is still possible the blood found on and in Halbach’s Rav4 was obtained from that vial. It sounds like the scientific community has weighed in heavily on this, mostly saying the test that was used was likely imperfect and rushed. It points to an interesting faith we seem to have in forensic evidence. This faith is clearly fostered by CSI and similar shows.
- Erased voicemails and voicemail access – The discussion over this in the trial was one of the more maddening moments to watch. It was clear someone had accessed Halbach’s voicemail after she must have already been dead in the prosecution’s narrative. The question is, who? It certainly could have been Halbach herself. However, we know the Hillegas had “guessed” her password. Did he access it? Who erased the voicemails? Is it ever possible to retrieve these lost voicemails? In the modern electronic world, nothing is every truly erased. I find it hard to believe they don’t exist on some backup server somewhere. Items like that are a key focus of Avery’s new attorney. Apparently she is also working the angle that a call was made from Halbach’s cell phone after she was supposedly dead. It is possible the evidence will show that the call was made from somewhere away from Avery’s property – such as the Zipperer property, where she was supposed to go next.
There are other pieces of evidence I did not mention in this section or in my analysis of the various theories, but these are all items that have been thoroughly covered by others who have written about and discussed this case. Nothing I can write will add to those analyses. In all cases, these additional details shed little light on what happened since they all fall into the category of odd or tainted in some way.
Were the filmmakers fair?
This brings us to the broader question of how fair the documentary was to the players in this drama. I believe the filmmakers did leave out a few items that did not support the story they were telling. I knew I was being manipulated a little bit, but I sought out answers on my own afterward. Ultimately, all footage used the words and actions of the people involved directly. Had the prosecution been more willing to cooperate, perhaps a slightly less unsympathetic view of their efforts might have emerged. I think the actions and events speak for themselves.
In the end, the filmmakers did show various pieces of evidence that add up to more than enough reasonable doubt in my opinion. There would have to be much more adeptly gathered and analyzed physical evidence, without the stain of conflict of interest, for me to have convicted either Avery or Dassey.
The final word
Maybe they did do it. But I don’t believe the State proved its case in either trial. I agree with Dean Strang: I hope they are both guilty for the system’s sake. It appears we are going to get a new round of information soon. Avery’s new attorney, Kathleen Zellner, is promising some bombshells in late August. We’ll see if any of my additions to the theories pop up!
I welcome any additions, comments, corrections, or suggestions. This whole case fascinates me on many levels, and I want to do it all justice.
Other Updates and Observations
- 9-20-2016 – I just realized that, in the March 2 press conference, Ken Kratz mentions that Avery got a butcher knife and stabbed Halbach. Pretty sure it is impossible to stab someone with a butcher knife. Just saying.