In December of 2015, Netflix quietly released Making a Murderer — a documentary series about the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach and subsequent conviction of Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, for the crime. For all its claims of impartiality, the series’ bias was clear from its name: Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos believed that law enforcement officials homed in on Avery and Dassey early and never seriously considered anyone else for the crime. The show struck a nerve with audiences around the world.
True crime is hardly a new genre, and murder cases have long captured the public’s imagination. But through the force of the internet, many now feel as though they no longer have to accept the official story told to them by courts, the press, or documentaries. Following Making a Murderer’s massive success, some viewers have taken to the internet attempting to verify the information in the documentary. And when information isn’t available, these independent (and mostly amateur) investigators have sought it out for themselves. Campaigns have been started using Freedom of Information requests to gain access to court documents, and several thousand dollars have been raised to pay for the court administration fees associated with releasing over 15,000 pages from the trial.
We’ve been following the Making a Murderer story since the show debuted back in December. After seeing several compelling arguments and potential pieces of evidence emerge from the discussion boards of Reddit, we decided to get in touch with some of the people who had made the jump from fans to criminal investigation hobbyists, devoting massive chunks of their lives to investigating the death of Teresa Halbach.
Meet The Internet Sleuths
Super_Pickle runs StevenAveryCase.com and worked to bring many of the court documents into the public domain. She has strong opinions about Making a Murderer.
“Getting access to the source documents and tapes for ourselves, we were able to see how manipulated footage and information in Making a Murderer was,” she says. Super_Pickle then goes further with a stream of unverified accusations about the show. “Words are cut out of the middle of sentences, reaction shots are clipped into places to seem suspicious, testimony is spliced together to completely change its meaning, and information is filtered to portray Steven in the best possible light. It’s a disgusting propaganda piece playing on emotions to exploit a woman’s murder and convince the public her killer should be set free.”
“Propaganda” is a word that comes up a lot when discussing the case with these kinds of impassioned web detectives. But there’s a major disagreement over whether it applies to the documentary or the prosecution’s accusations against Avery and Dassey. While many online have worked together to collect and disseminate the same documents, their conclusions on what those documents reveal contrast sharply. After accessing the documents, the original /r/MakingAMurderer subreddit splintered off into two separate groups, the bluntly named /r/StevenAveryIsGuilty and /r/TickTockManitowoc, which references Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, whose officials imprisoned Avery in 1985 and 2006.
Reddit user AngieB created a series of timeline documents covering the day of Teresa Halbach’s murder and the progression of the trial. “I have tried to entertain the idea that Steven Avery could be guilty but the evidence is not there,” she says. “The timelines and circumstances do not fit. I like knowing that we are bringing attention to people who need help, and to a system that does not value human life.”
Redditor Wewannawii has put forward several new pieces of potential evidence, all pointing to Avery’s guilt. “The pro-guilt side is often asked why, since Avery has already been convicted, do we even bother to discuss the case at all?” he says. “I can’t speak for the others, but for me, there has been a sense of urgency in the wake of Making a Murderer that the push to exonerate Avery will be successful if it isn’t countered and opposed. There is a very real danger that the justice that was achieved for Teresa Halbach will be unraveled.”
Reddit user Foghaze is one of the most active members on /r/TickTockManitowoc, the site’s community for those who believe Steven Avery is innocent. “I’m not sure if I should answer this, but I spend at least 8 hours a day on this,” she admits. “I have neglected my social life completely. I tried calculating the total hours I’ve spent on the Teresa Halbach case and it’s a little less than 2,000 hours of research.” Foghaze’s dedication is impressive, as is her willingness to go wherever the case takes her. Even to the point of changing her mind completely.
“I had originally started researching this case to debunk the claims that were being made in the Making a Murderer documentary. I knew if I could examine the transcripts and investigator’s reports, it would be from the unbiased source. Not long after immersing myself into all the documents and trying to piece together all the gaping holes, it became more and more evident I could not debunk anything and what the filmmakers were suggesting might very well be a fact. There is nothing more that really gets to me than seeing someone being treated unfairly. I now believe this type of corruption goes on more than we care to admit and something needs to be done.”
Something, but what and by whom?
The Pros And Cons Of Crowdsourced Detective Work
While Making a Murderer does a good job exposing the many disadvantages defense attorneys and their clients face when fighting for their innocence, it never offers up a convincing alternative theory of what happened to Teresa Halbach the day she visited the Avery Salvage Yard. That’s led viewers to point fingers at nearly everyone featured in the documentary, from Avery relatives to Manitowoc law enforcement to Teresa’s family members. That kind of suspicion creates a pretty heavy imprint on the internet. Google ‘Teresa Halbach was murdered by’ and the search engine’s predictive auto-complete function suggests ‘Teresa Halbach was murdered by brother.’
“I think crowdsourcing is at best inadequate and at worst dangerous,” Super_Pickle says. “We all remember the Boston [Marathon] bombing incident. In the Avery case, countless people have been accused of being murderers, and their pasts are dug into in an attempt to prove it. Now, if you Google their names, you get results accusing them of murder and airing their dirty laundry. The reputations of so many innocent people are being dragged through the mud with no proper investigation being done. There is even one minor who gave an account of being raped by Avery, and now her name is there for anyone who looks. A victim of sexual abuse shouldn’t have her name in the public with a graphic account of her attack. With the information I released, I took care to delete any personal information. But not all the ‘crowdsourcers’ take that care.”
There’s also a pretty big market for over the top stories with little basis in reality. One series of videos claims that Halbach was murdered by a Satanic sex cult, and that’s just one of the lurid theories put forward by the fringe elements of Making a Murderer communities.
“I think the dumbest theory I’ve encountered is that Teresa was a drug dealer turned confidential informant for the police, and she was actually in on the whole conspiracy and is alive in South America,” Super_Pickle says. “But there are plenty of dumb ones, including the Edward Wayne Edwards theory.”
That theory speculates that Teresa Halbach was slain by a serial killer named Edward Wayne Edwards, who would have been 72 in 2005. While Edwards has only been officially credited with five deaths, a former Great Falls, Montana police detective believes that he also murdered Halbach as well as Chandra Levy, JonBenet Ramsey, and all the Zodiac Killer victims, to name a few. The Edwards/Halbach theory rapidly spread across the internet, bolstered by a photo that allegedly showed Edwards in the background of the courthouse during Steven Avery’s trial, supposedly admiring his latest frame job.
“That theory is a good reminder that someone can construct an entire semi-plausible theory based on virtually zero facts,” Wewannawii notes.
Many of the regulars investigating Making a Murderer look down on this kind of theorizing and see it as tabloid fodder or perverse speculation originating from cranks on less reputable serial killer discussion forums. To them, the Making a Murderer case is different because everyone is working off official court documents trying to find a smoking gun that can hold up in court. And with such a large community of active users investigating every angle of the case, the internet really has discovered things that had gone overlooked by both the original trial and the documentary.
“Some of these people online have found things with a screenshot of a picture that we missed,” Jerry Buting, Steven Avery’s 2006 trial lawyer, told Rolling Stone. “There’s a picture of [Teresa Halbach] that I’ve looked at a thousand times that shows her standing in front of her vehicle, the RAV4. She’s got a camera in one hand and she’s also got keys. And it’s like a key ring. You can see there’s a bunch of keys there like a house key, probably a photography studio key, maybe her parents’ house key. And those were never recovered. Instead, we found this single key. We had 25,000 pages of discovery and police reports to go through, we had hundreds and hundreds of hours of tape-recorded phone calls and interrogations and aerial footage … but we were only two minds. What I’m discovering is that a million minds are better than two.”
Wewannawii agrees with that assessment. “When the extensive CASO investigation files were released, for example, 1,100 pages of documents were devoured and digested by the Making a Murderer subreddits in a matter of hours. It was like watching a school of piranhas attack.”
More discoveries followed, and they didn’t always back up Steven Avery’s innocence.
After a neighbor recalled seeing a Toyota RAV4 like Teresa Halbach’s entering the Avery Salvage Yard followed by a white jeep, Wewannawii tracked down photos of a white Suzuki Samurai jeep owned by the Averys at the time. He also noticed a smear on Teresa Halbach’s cellphone with scar markings that seem to line up with scars on Steven Avery’s finger.
On the other side of the fight, Redditor Foghaze noticed inconsistencies in how forensic scientists identified and handled Teresa Halbach’s remains, calling into question whether tests to identify her bones were legitimate. She also put forward a convincing argument that documents listing Teresa Halbach’s phone records had been tampered with.
None of these claims have been corroborated by law enforcement or the courts thus far, though.
“Redditors have made discoveries that may be important, but without access to evidence, it’s impossible to validate anything.” AngieB admits. “Our ability to research is limited to the information that’s been released, but people are willing to pick it apart and study every little thing for inconsistencies. Collectively we have raised questions that I hope lawyers will follow up on.”
The World Is Watching
Steven Avery’s appeal lawyer Kathleen Zellner has been “paying close attention to the hundreds of tips sent to her office” by fans. Her firm set up a page where you can, “Communicate directly with us about tips and other information that you believe is important for us to consider or know about in our defense of Mr. Avery,” and she’s even been known to take phone calls from web detectives.
She recently filed a motion to retest numerous pieces of evidence from the 2006 trial. Included in her list were many items of interest that have long intrigued Reddit detectives, including a pelvic bone found at a nearby quarry and a broken turn signal light that may have been removed and thrown in the back of Teresa’s vehicle on the night of her murder. The motion is the first legal step in what Zellner promises will lead to “a tsunami of new evidence” exonerating Steven Avery and possibly revealing the identity of Teresa Halbach’s true killer.
It could take months for the state to respond to her request, but the wheels of the system are turning. Earlier in August, Brendan Dassey’s conviction was thrown out after a federal court decided his confession was obtained illegally. The state of Wisconsin has 90 days to decide whether to appeal the ruling or retry Dassey. Unlike his uncle, Brendan’s release has near unanimous support from the Making a Murderer community.
“Anyone with half a brain could see this child knew nothing and was being harassed and coerced,” Foghaze says. “Had the media done their job, they would have immediately known that Dassey did not confess to anything and the investigators had fed every line to him and he was only agreeing after being asked the same question a dozen times. Awareness needs to be raised and reform needs to take place so this unjust phenomenon may stop. The Reid Technique is only used in the United States. These tactics were banned in Europe ages ago!”
There’s the hope that Making a Murderer‘s effect will extend far beyond the Avery and Dassey cases and spur reform or at least serious discussion regarding the obvious shortcomings of the American legal system.
“Steven Avery’s original wrongful conviction case against Manitowoc led to systematic changes,” Angie B says. As a direct result, Brendan’s interrogations were videotaped, and without that Brendan and many others would have no hope against manipulation from law enforcement. Our involvement has kept the case in the public eye, and I hope our interest has put pressure on the system to change overall. Without the documentary and Reddit involvement, this case would be invisible.”
“Cases are decided in a context, and the context for Brendan has changed since the time the state courts have looked at the case,” Dassey’s lawyer Steven Drizin told PBS shortly after their legal win. “And what that means is that the federal court was probably extra careful, in drafting a 91-page opinion, because the whole world is watching.”
With a second season of Making a Murderer in the works and the communities surrounding the show continuing to grow as time goes on, that spotlight is only set to get more intense. And while the outcomes of these cases rest in the hands of the lawyers and judges handling them, there’s no doubt the public’s attention will ensure any motions with legitimate arguments won’t just be ignored and denied out of hand — a luxury most other conviction appeals, unfortunately, don’t receive.