This weekend marks one year since Making a Murderer debuted on Netflix and unexpectedly proved to be holiday binge-watching gold. Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardo’s 10-episode docuseries about the case against Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man convicted and sentenced to life in prison for a 2005 murder, quickly dominated conversation at dinner tables across the country. By New Year’s Day, pretty much everyone had an opinion on whether Avery (along with his teenage nephew Brendan Dassey) really killed 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach, or if he had been framed by the very same sheriff’s department that had already falsely convicted and imprisoned him 20 years before.
Convicted in 2006 and 2007 respectively, Avery and Dassey had already been behind bars for nearly a decade when Making a Murderer suddenly made them household names. By December 2015, despite the best efforts of their attorneys and their vehement denial of any wrongdoing, they had very few legal options left for seeking relief. Avery, having run out of money for an attorney, was representing himself and crafting his second attempt at appeal, and Dassey’s defense team had recently filed a writ of habeas corpus for release or retrial, a legal Hail Mary that could take the court years to address. They had little reason to hope that anything short of a miracle would give them a chance at freedom.
That miracle turned out to be Making a Murderer, which Demos and Ricciardi had been filming for the better part of 10 years. Each episode more infuriating than the last, the series cast a bright light on issues of police and prosecutorial corruption and raised significant questions about the veracity of Avery and Dassey’s convictions. The international attention that the show brought to the case inspired both outrage and action, and has ultimately resulted in major legal developments that might have otherwise taken years. Here, a look inside everything that’s happened in the year since Making a Murderer debuted.
A ratings boom brought the public rallying around Avery and Dassey…
To call Making a Murderer a huge success would be an understatement. Within 35 days of its release, nearly 20 million people in the United States had watched the series, and protestors were showing up to picket in front of the Manitowoc County Courthouse. By January 19th, a White House petition to pardon Steve Avery had exceeded the 100,000 signature threshold needed to garner a response from the Obama administration. Unfortunately, presidential pardons aren’t so simple. “Under the constitution, only federal criminal convictions, such as those adjudicated in the United States District Courts, may be pardoned by the President,” the White House said in a statement released in early January. “However, the President cannot pardon a state criminal offense.” Womp womp.
A similar petition over at Change.org, meanwhile, has accumulated over half a million signatures, and while Avery’s trial attorney Dean Strang was quick to praise the passion of Avery’s supporters, he also made it clear that such efforts are ultimately fruitless. “Steven’s realistic hope does not lie in a petition, as good as that is for people to become involved,” he said. “It lies in the area of newly discovered evidence.”
And that, in turn, attracted famed wrongful conviction attorney Kathleen Zellner.
Making a Murderer brought Avery’s case to the attention of Chicago defense lawyer Kathleen Zellner, who is credited with the exonerations of 18 wrongfully convicted clients, including Ryan Ferguson of MTV’s Unlocking the Truth. Just before Avery’s appeal made news, Zellner announced that she, in partnership with the Midwestern Innocence Project, would be taking on Avery’s case. Avery had just filed his last motion to appeal, but that didn’t seem to phase Zellner, who said she hoped to free him from prison without ever stepping foot in a courtroom – a retrial is nice, but a full exoneration that leaves no room for argument was the goal. Zellner’s confidence is nothing to sneeze at – she has a track record for being extremely thorough in her vetting of potential clients, warning, “Don’t hire me if you’re guilty, because I will find out.”
All the public scrutiny has meant new theories in the case…
The police’s improper handling of the crime scene, the treasure trove of evidence that suddenly appeared when they showed up and the inexplicable timing of Halbach’s murder just as Avery was on the brink of bankrupting the county have led many to believe that he was framed by local law enforcement. But who actually killed Halbach – if she’s dead at all, ahem – has been a subject of near-constant debate on Reddit for the last year. These exhaustingly detailed theories, complete with everything from charts, photos, and 10-year-old cell tower data, to maps, real estate records and, uh, soil mineral levels, occasionally spark the interest of Zellner herself.
Zellner, meanwhile, hasn’t made a secret of some of her own theories about the case. Since taking Avery’s case, she’s used Twitter to tease potential bombshells, antagonize Manitowoc County law enforcement and at times outright accuse them of framing her client. She has also alluded to specific developments in the investigation, including narrowing down the pool of alternative suspects and hinting at what she expects new scientific testing to reveal.
Yet Wisconsin law enforcement is not giving up.
In late January, Ken Kratz, the former Calumet County District Attorney who prosecuted both Avery and Dassey, announced that he would be writing a tell-all book about the case, telling law enforcement’s side of the story. He positioned it as a tribute to Halbach, who he said had been “forgotten” – even though Halbach was barely an afterthought in a 2015 letter Kratz sent to Avery, suggesting that they write a book together.
“The difference between you and famous convicted murderers from the past is they told their whole truthful story to someone who then wrote a book about what actually happened and people got to understand both sides,” Kratz implored. “I was willing to help you do that … if you change your mind and want to tell your honest story someday, please contact me.”
Also in January, Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department officer Andrew Colborn – who many believe played a big role in framing Avery for Halbach’s murder – sent a letter to a USA Today reporter about his coverage of the case. “I know the truth doesn’t sell newspapers as much as lies and controversy, but for once try thinking about the consequences of the slander and defamation that you are authoring and participating in,” Colborn warned. “A word of caution, be careful what you wish for. If Steven Avery is ever freed, he may just become your neighbor, and he may want to bring his nephew with him.”
Avery’s love life hit the headlines…
Though Avery and Dassey largely have the support of family and friends, Avery’s ex-fiancée Jodi Stachowski – who was seen in MaM – told Nancy Grace in January that she thinks he’s guilty. Stachowski also called Avery a “monster” and said that the documentary is “full of lies.”
Avery’s romantic life hasn’t gotten any less complicated behind bars. After calling off his relationship with longtime girlfriend Sandy Greenman (also seen in MaM), in September, Avery announced his engagement to a Las Vegas woman named Lynn Hartmann. Though they had apparently been “dating” for eight months, they had only met once; by October, the engagement was called off.
And his trial attorneys went on tour.
Avery’s trial attorneys Dean Strang and Jerry Buting were arguably the heroes – and some would say unexpected heartthrobs – of Making a Murderer, thanks to their crushingly earnest insights into the failures of the justice system. In March, the pair announced they were packing up their normcore sweaters and going on a Conversation on Justice Tour, using their sudden and somewhat uncomfortable fame to draw further attention to the criminal justice issues seen in Making a Murderer, including the impact of economic inequality, procedural failures in evidence collection, and dangerous and misleading interrogation techniques.
Netflix green-lighted a second season…
In May, Demos and Ricciardi told Time Out London that they were in talks with Zellner “about the potential of filming with her and continuing to follow the story.” By July, the Avery and Dassey families were on board for Making a Murderer season two, which will document the post-conviction process in Avery and Dassey’s cases. And the timing couldn’t have been better, because…
And the timing couldn’t have been better, because Dassey’s conviction was overturned.
In August, Dassey’s defense won a sudden, and somewhat unexpected, legal victory when a federal judge in Wisconsin overturned the now-26-year-old’s convictions for murder and sexual assault. Because the physical evidence that was used against Avery did not link Dassey to Halbach’s murder, the sole piece of evidence against Dassey was his retracted verbal and written confessions, which his lawyers argued were coerced by police and an investigator working on behalf of his own defense attorney. Judge William Duffin agreed, writing in his ruling that there were “significant doubts as to the reliability of Dassey’s confession.” He went on: “These repeated false promises, when considered in conjunction with all relevant factors, most especially Dassey’s age, intellectual deficits, and the absence of a supportive adult, rendered Dassey’s confession involuntary under the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments.”
Duffin ordered his immediately release, but in October, prosecutors for the State of Wisconsin filed court documents opposing Dassey’s release from prison and the overturned conviction. They claimed Dassey’s confession was legitimate and voluntary and that his release would present a “danger to society” and “irreparably harm” the Halbach family. In November, Judge Duffin again ordered that Dassey be released while the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit considers the State’s motion to overturn his ruling. Unfortunately, just a few days later, the Seventh Circuit blocked Dassey’s release and ordered that he remain in jail pending their decision.
Most importantly, Hurricane Zellner is hitting Wisconsin.
In August, shortly after Dassey’s conviction was overturned, Wisconsin authorities were dealt another blow when Zellner filed a motion demanding new scientific testing on the evidence in Avery’s case. Her 45-page filing explained that Avery was willing to pay for “the most comprehensive, thorough and advanced forensic testing ever requested by a criminal defendant in the State of Wisconsin.” Zellner made it clear that she expected the test results to prove that Avery had been framed by members of law enforcement and laid out her theory for how various pieces of evidence were planted on the Avery property. Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, Zellner said, “We are going to get to the bottom of who killed Teresa Halbach.”
In late November, a judge granted Zellner’s request after she and the Attorney General’s Office came to an agreement on nine pieces of evidence to be tested, including blood flakes from the floor of Halbach’s vehicle, bloodstains from the front seats, a swab from the car’s ignition area, and a bloodstain swab from the rear passenger door. The key to Halbach’s car that was found in Avery’s trailer, the swab used on the hood latch that tested positive for Avery’s DNA and the vial of Avery’s blood that the defense has long believed was used to frame him are also being tested. Though the AG’s Office refused to allow testing on items that had not been tested previously, she praised the office for being “so cooperative and helpful in expediting these tests.”
So what’s ahead for Avery and Dassey in 2017? In all likelihood, major revelations stemming from the results of Zellner’s scientific tests, a decision as to whether to uphold or overturn Dassey’s vacated conviction – and a new season of Making a Murderer documenting every last second.