The 10-part Netflix series Making a Murderer is the latest entry in America’s newfound obsession with serialized true crime storytelling, coming on the heels of the hugely popular podcast Serial and HBO’s The Jinx. In each case the show ends but the story continues – and questions persist.
Filmed over a decade, the docu-series follows the strange case of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man exonerated after spending 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, only to be arrested and ultimately convicted of a murder for which he also maintains his innocence.
There are, of course, some major questions that people have been asking since the show first started streaming in mid-December: Why did it take so long to find the RAV4 key and the bullet? Why was anyone from Manitowoc law enforcement even allowed on the site that late in the investigation? Here are some other questions we have – some smaller, some bigger, all perplexing (spoilers galore).
1. Who the hell is the international recording artist who was released from the jury?
Richard Mahler, listed in the documentary as an “international recording artist,” is actually just a local dude with a local band, according to TMZ. Mahler’s outfit, the Rick Raybine Band, played the National Anthem at a NASCAR event once; as for how he got the label, Mahler told the site that a reporter described him that way once and it just stuck. Mahler was ultimately dismissed from the jury for a family emergency after he sat in deliberations for four hours.
2. What went on with the jury deliberations?
The much more interesting part about Mahler is his new allegation that two fellow jurors were related to officials in Manitowoc County, where Avery was initially wrongfully convicted. Once the trial was over, Mahler discovered, “[one juror] was the father of a Manitowoc County Sheriff’s deputy,” and that “another juror, his wife works for the Manitowoc County Clerk’s Office,” according to an interview he gave to People.
Maybe that’s what defense attorney Jerry Buting was getting at in the final episode, when he made a comment about unanswered questions that he had about jury deliberations. After all, according to Mahler, the original count was that only three jurors were convinced Avery was guilty. In an interview with the Today show, filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos said a juror contacted them after the series aired and claimed his or her decision to vote guilty was made under duress. “The person lived in the county, feared for their safety, and also said, ‘If they could frame Steven Avery, they could do it to me,'” Ricciardi said in a follow up interview with Time.
3. Why did the defense team for Brendan Dassey seek to further the State’s case?
Len Kachinsky – the original defense attorney for Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey – is arguably the most inscrutable element of Making a Murderer. His initial comments to the press that implied Dassey’s guilt (and by extension, Avery’s) were so unprofessional that, when later questioned about them on the stand at a hearing, Kachinsky purports to have forgotten he said what he said.
In one disturbing scene, the lawyer’s investigator, Michael O’Kelly, appears to coerce Dassey into massaging his statement so that it aligns perfectly with what the prosecution needs. And in an email between O’Kelly and Kachinsky – remember, both technically working for Dassey – the former all but admits he’s helping for the opposition. “I am not concerned with finding evidence to placing Brendan inside the crime scene, as Brendan will be State’s primary witness,” O’Kelly writes. “This will only serve to bolster the prosecution.”
Dassey’s post-conviction lawyer, Robert Dvorak, presses O’Kelley on this unbelievable admission. “So your goal is not only to get Brendan [Dassey] to confess, but also to help the State in its prosecution. Correct?” Dvorak asks.
“That’s correct,” O’Kelly replies.
Kachinsky isn’t there for the meeting between O’Kelly and Dassey, nor is he there the following day when two officers interrogate his client in an attempt to replicate what O’Kelly extracted. As the film notes, this level of cooperation between a defense attorney and prosecutors is unheard of. And to take it one step further, it appears to go beyond bad representation and raises questions of backdoor collusion or a quid pro quo. What possible motive do Kachinsky and O’Kelly have to affirmatively advance the prosecution’s case? We don’t know, but even really bad lawyering (which Kachinsky has copped to) doesn’t usually translate to sleeping with the enemy.
4. Is there any innocent explanation for the pinprick hole in the vial that held Avery’s blood?
No, really: Is there any convincing, non-nefarious explanation for why a box of evidence was opened, a blood vial apparently punctured with a syringe, and then the box taped back up? Is there any scenario in which that’s standard operating procedure for re-examining evidence? Even if you think it’s far-fetched that one or two cops would plant blood in the RAV 4, what other account is there that makes any sense?
5. Has testing for EDTA advanced?
Initially it looked like the blood vial is going to be a huge win for the defense. An FBI expert determined, however, that three swabs he ran in his lab didn’t contain the chemical EDTA, an additive that would have been in the blood vial — but not in blood itself — that came from a living body. That finding ended up being a major blow.
In the final episode, all of Avery’s former defense attorneys sit together discussing how their ex-client could get a new trial. Jerry Buting floats one idea that, as another attorney notes, bears a striking parallel to Avery’s first case. “If we could do a test today that was scientifically acceptable and valid, that actually proved there was EDTA in those blood stains, that would be newly discovered evidence,” Buting said. If that kind of test is possible, and shows what Buting hopes, it would be the second time new technology exonerated Avery of a crime he didn’t commit.
6. Is it common for defendants to be barred from arguing that someone else did it?
When we learn in the film that Avery’s team won’t be able to advance alternate theories to who killed Halbach, we were stunned. What was going on there?
The short answer is that Wisconsin has a third-party liability law that prevents a defendant from pointing the finger at somebody else without giving the court 30 days notice prior to trial, and having good reason to believe the third party had “motive, opportunity, and a direct connection to the crime.” Avery’s defense team wasn’t allowed to suggest anyone else could have been the culprit, which he later appealed. It’s not entirely clear how often defendants in other states are prohibited from advancing alternate theories for whodunit, but in this case it seems to have had a detrimental effect on Avery’s ability to defend himself.
7. What’s the story behind the deleted voicemails?
Halbach’s ex-boyfriend Ryan Hillegas testified on the stand that he was able to guest Teresa’s username and password and listen to several voicemail messages left on her phone. Avery’s defense lawyers argue that since the mailbox was full, and then some messages were deleted after her death, that someone knows more than they’re letting on.
When defense attorney Jerry Buting attempts to pursue this line of inquiry, though, the judge stops him on ground it will violate the third-party liability prohibition. If the State argued that Avery had already destroyed the phone, why didn’t the police follow up on any and all people who might have had a motive to delete Halbach’s voicemails?
8. Why was Halbach’s pelvic bone discovered in the quarry?
At trial, defense attorney Dean Strang cross-examined forensic anthropologist Dr Leslie Eisenberg about whether Halbach’s remains had been moved or not. Dr Eisenberg testified that she believed the primary burn site was the burn pit 20 feet from Avery’s bedroom, but acknowledges remains were found in a separate barrel, as well as a quarry that’s far away from the other two sites.
The State argued that the burn pit was the primary burn location, while the defense argued it could have been elsewhere – implying, possibly, the quarry. If the State’s theory is correct, what accounts for Halbach’s pelvic bone being discovered in the quarry?
9. What’s going on when Sgt Andrew Colborn called in the read the license plate for Halbach’s RAV 4?
In Episode Five, defense attorney Dean Strang asks Sgt Colborn about a phone call he made to his dispatcher prior the discovery of Halbach’s vehicle on Avery’s property. In the recording of the call, Colborn asks dispatch to run a license plate number, and gets a hit for Teresa Halbach, who at that point was listed as a missing person. Colborn then immediately says “Ninety-Nine Toyota?”
To Strang – and likely to many viewers – it sounds like Colborn is looking at the very SUV that wouldn’t be discovered for another two days. “I shouldn’t have been and I was not looking at the license plate,” Colborn responded on the stand.
Maybe. But what was he looking at?
10. Who killed Teresa Halbach?
This remains the most important unanswered question in the case. Redditors have been floating alternate theories about who killed Halbach since the show premiered in late December. Since Avery himself wasn’t able to pursue this question at trial, and the filmmakers have said it wasn’t their job to investigate the case independently, we’re left with little more than speculation. If it was Avery, then it seems clear it didn’t go down the way Dassey described it. Could Avery have sterilized two crime scenes to eliminate virtually all traces of Halbach’s presence? It seems unlikely.
Ultimately, the responsibility for answering this question shouldn’t be that of Internet detectives. And although disgraced prosecutor Ken Kratz is waging his own media blitz to assure the public justice was done, that seems to be a lonely battle at this point.