Making a Murderer‘s Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, are still sitting in prison for the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach, but in the court of public opinion, their case is far from closed. On Friday, January 29, Dateline‘s “The State of Wisconsin vs. Steven A. Avery” focused on the lingering mysteries at the center of the hit docuseries that premiered on Netflix last December.
As fans of the buzzy series know, Avery spent 18 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. He was finally exonerated by DNA evidence — only to return to prison shortly thereafter when he and Dassey were convicted of the murder of Halbach. Dassey, who was 16 at the time, is eligible for parole in 2048. Avery is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
The special included footage from a rare, sit-down interview that took place in 2005 with Penny Beernsten, the victim of the sexual assault case that sent Avery to prison the first time. It also featured new interviews with Dassey’s attorneys, Steven Drizin and Laura Nirider, as well as former prosecutor Ken Kratz.
Assistant District Attorney Confirms Avery Lit a Cat on Fire
Dateline‘s footage suggested that there may be a darker side to Avery. An assistant district attorney from Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, recalled a few of the reasons authorities were quick to look to the salvage yard owner.
“He poured gasoline on a cat and threw the cat in the fire,” the assistant D.A. said. “Pretty telling things about what was going on his mind — violent stuff. He also ran his pickup truck into the vehicle of a woman who was driving by, and he held her at gunpoint.”
Penny Explained Why She Was So Sure They’d Gotten the Right Man
The special also featured Beernsten revealing details of her attack in a 2005 interview. “He ran out from behind a bush,” she recalled. “I said, ‘I have two children; please let me go.'” She alleges that he didn’t — at least, not for a while: “Eventually, he strangled me until I believe I lost consciousness.”
Later, when she was given a slate of suspects’ photos, she selected Avery’s photo. “I think my confidence that I had selected the right person was boosted when they told me that the person they had arrested was the suspect that they had in mind,” Beersten said.
She added, “It seemed like it took forever for the verdict to be read,” and she recalled that when Avery was found guilty, she had “a huge sense of relief.”
Beernsten Knew the Wrong Man Might Have Been Convicted — But Was Told to Stay Out of It
One day, after Avery was behind bars, Beernsten got a call from someone at the police station who said, “We have another suspect in mind who is not Steven Avery, but who looks a great deal like Steven Avery, and we’d like to ask you a few questions.” Not surprisingly, Beernsten was immediately concerned.
“I remember hanging up the phone and thinking, ‘Oh, my God — maybe the wrong person’s in custody,'” she revealed. She immediately called the sheriff, who told her the Manitowoc Police Department didn’t have jurisdiction. She claims she was told by the sheriff’s office, “We will look into this. Don’t talk to them — it will only confuse you.”
Eventually, in 2001, the Wisconsin Innocence Project got two hairs from Avery’s file tested for DNA, and the results exonerated Avery because they were a match to Gregory Allen, a known sex offender who was already serving time in prison.
“I knew that I identified the wrong person, before they told me,” she said. “That day was much more difficult than the day of the assault for me. I just couldn’t grasp the magnitude of being an unwitting participant in this huge miscarriage of justice.”
Allen Was Never Charged With the Rape of Beernsten
Despite the overwhelming DNA evidence, Allen denied assaulting Beersten when Dateline spoke with him in 2005. What’s more, he was never even charged with the crime because by the time the hairs had been tested, the statute of limitations had already passed.
Beernsten Made Amends With Avery
The two met face-to-face, after Avery’s release. “I began by apologizing and saying I knew how inadequate my words were,” she recalled, noting that she asked if it was OK to give him a hug. According to Beernsten, Avery didn’t wait to answer, but took the initiative and hugged her on the spot.
Kratz Reiterated the State’s Theory That Avery Lured Halbach to his Home
Kratz told Dateline, “We got information that suggested her phone was last used in or around the vicinity of Steven Avery’s salvage yard.” Kratz noted that Avery had placed two calls to Halbach that day but blocked his number when he’d called.
During the ensuing trial, Kratz argued that Avery lured Halbach to his salvage yard, murdered her and then burned her remains.
However, Dateline also replayed an interview with Avery’s former attorney, Jerry Buting. For his part, Buting firmly argued Avery had been framed, citing suspicions about two key pieces of evidence: Halbach’s car key (which was discovered in Avery’s house and had his DNA on it, but not hers) and Avery’s blood on the dashboard of Halbach’s car (which, Buting argued, was lifted from a vial of Avery’s blood that had been accessible to the police).
Buting Was Shocked by the Success of Making a Murderer
Asked if he was surprised by how many people had seen the docuseries, Avery’s former attorney didn’t miss a beat. “I am. I’ve gotten emails and contacts from literally all over the world,” Buting said. “I was hesitant [to participate] at first, but I realized that this would be an opportunity for people to see what it’s like to put on a case from the defense side.”
Kratz Still Insists Avery Was Not Framed — Buting Still Isn’t Buying It
“With any one of these facts, you can come up with a ‘what if’ scenario,” Buting acknowledged. “But at some point, this conspiracy theory collapses under its own weight.”
But what about the hole in Avery’s vial of blood that Buting kept pointing to as evidence that his client had been framed? Kratz said there is a simple explanation. “Every one of these vacu-sealed tubes is exactly the same. They’re all going to have that. There’s nothing magic, or ‘Oh, my goodness! It was tampered with!'” he argued.
“This part didn’t make the documentary,” he said. “But you could definitely see that right up to the edge, there was blood in between the stopper and the glass.” Buting argued that this meant the rubber stopper “had to be removed from the tube” at some point after the blood was put inside.
However, an expert in blood collection (who had no involvement in the case) said Buting is mistaken. “That stopper is not a complete tight fit,” he said, noting it was “typical” and even “common” to see blood gathering around the stopper on the inside of the tube. As for the hole Buting kept pointing to, the expert declared it “meant absolutely nothing” because “there is always a telltale puncture mark in the tubes that are properly filled.”
A Prison Nurse Said She Made the Hole in the Vial of Blood
All that debate may have been for nothing, though, because Dateline found court documents that verified that a prison nurse had been ready to testify that she made the hole when drawing the blood from Avery in 1996.
The Current Manitowoc County Sheriff Is Certain Avery Was Not Framed
Last week, Dateline spoke to the current Manitowoc County sheriff, Robert Herman, who insisted Avery was not framed. “I know it’s not true,” he said. “I have 100 percent confidence in the deputies who were out there. You would have to have a lot more people on board to say that evidence was planted or Steven Avery was framed.”
Dassey’s (New) Attorneys Are Hoping to Get Him a New Trial
“Making a Murderer has been such a revelation for Brendan’s case because for the first time in 10 years, he’s finally getting his story listened to,” Nirider said. Her colleague, Drizin added, “The film restored his presumption of innocence. Everybody who saw that film is left with one indelible impression: ‘This kid got screwed, and he deserves a new trial.'”
Dassey’s attorneys have asked the federal court to review his case, but Kratz doesn’t think they’re likely to succeed.
Kratz Regrets One Thing: His Graphic Press Conference
“Having to do it all over again, I would not have given that press conference,” he said, referring to a press event he did in which he outlined — in brutal detail — the account of the murder that Dassey had given during his prolonged interrogation. “I would have simply released the complaint.”
Actually, though, Kratz admitted one more regret (though he didn’t call it that, specifically). “I look back to the bravado and the narcissism, really, that I experienced and expressed, and it’s surprising to me,” he said. “I was a jerk.” (Perhaps Kratz has been humbled since his sexual harassment of a domestic violence victim became a story in its own right.)
Avery’s New Attorney Thinks She Has New Evidence to Free Him
Perhaps all hope is not lost for Avery, however. His new attorney, Kathleen Zellner (who has a reputation for winning wrongful conviction cases) confirmed to Dateline that she believes they have new evidence that could free him.
“We do, yeah,” she said. “I can tell you generally that since 2007, there have been significant advances in forensic testing.”
Asked, specifically, if she was planning to re-test Avery’s blood that had been found in Halbach’s car, she said, “We will do everything necessary that is forensically available.”
Additionally, she confirmed that they have a new, alternative list of suspects to point to. “Clearly, there are other people we’re looking at. That’s always done in a case like this,” she said.
As for Avery, she confirmed that “he’s doing much better now that he’s aware that there’s new testing that can be done.” She added, “When someone wants every possible test done that could be done to prove their guilt or innocence, that’s when you know they’re innocent.”
Making a Murderer is currently streaming on Netflix.
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