a lawyer’s verdict on making a murderer

asking for parental advice

Growing up as the daughter of two lawyers was a particular kind of childhood, one in which I rarely won arguments, developed an intense fascination with criminal psychology, and learned that what’s fair or what’s just is not always the verdict. My mother specializes in health law, privacy, and corporate governance. My father wanted to be a criminal lawyer until he realized that his clients tended to actually be guilty—like the man he was tasked with defending who was charged with having special relations with a goat. After that, he switched to corporate and securities law.

Over the holiday break I brought “Making a Murderer,” the explosively popular Netflix original series, to the attention of my parents. My boyfriend and I had binge-watched the show’s ten hour-long episodes over the course of a week, and, while we had our opinions on the guilt or innocence of the central figures, I wanted to see how my lawyer parents would react. For those not familiar with the show, or who have avoided it the way one avoids hard drugs—it is scarily addictive—it is a documentary series, filmed over the course of ten years, that concerns a man named Steven Avery and his encounters with the law. In 1985, Avery, who is from Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, was found guilty of first-degree sexual assault against fellow Manitowoc resident Penny Beernsten, and sentenced to 32 years in prison. After 18 years, Avery was released in 2003, a consequence of new DNA evidence that proved his innocence. The first episode of “Making a Murderer” deals mostly with how and why Avery was falsely convicted, citing specific instances of possibly intentional negligence by the sheriff’s department that may or may not have freed Avery from prison earlier.

One thing I’ve learned from my lawyer parents: If you aren’t certain, “possibly” and “may or may not” are your better options.

Upon his release, Avery sued Manitowoc County and its former sheriff and district attorney for $36 million in damages, while also expressing his forgiveness for the whole business. I thought about that all throughout the first episode—about how much, monetarily, 18 years of a life spent sitting in a jail for something you didn’t do was worth, and about whether I would be able to forgive so easily. I couldn’t answer either of those questions.

But then something happened on Halloween, 2005. A photographer named Teresa Halbach went missing, and her last appointment of the day was on Avery’s property. Her car and burned remains were soon found on the property, and Avery was charged with intentional homicide, mutilation of a corpse, and possession of firearms as a felon.

This is where the spoiler alert would go if I were to keep summarizing, but it won’t be necessary. The intricacies of the murder case and the complexity of the evidence brought against Steven Avery are better left to the show, and I don’t like to ruin surprises, of which there are many in “Making a Murderer.” By the final episode, when the ruling is announced, I had gone back and forth between, “He has to be guilty” and “Wow, are you kidding me, he’s 100% innocent,” so many times that I lost count. In the aftermath of the show’s release there have been articles, timelines, conspiracy theories, and petitions about the case, and I’ve read most of them. And I still don’t know what I think—whether Steven Avery murdered Teresa Halbach, or not. Part of what makes the show so popular, I think, is the discussions it generates—on what actually happened, was the ruling just, and will we ever know.

So, in my doubt, I gently forced my mother to watch the show, and give me her opinion. (She wanted me to clarify that she isn’t a criminal lawyer, and that her thoughts on the case should be considered with this clarification in mind.) There are two things she thinks are important to keep in mind: 1. Before his 1985 conviction, Avery pled guilty to animal cruelty, having doused the family cat in gasoline and thrown it over the fire. “I was young and stupid,” he says in the first episode. 2. Avery did not take the stand in his defense in the murder trial. As my parents explained to me, when a defendant does not take the stand, the jury is more likely to convict, because if you plead “not guilty” you should theoretically have nothing to hide.

My mother’s opinion is based, therefore, less on the evidence than on Steven Avery’s personality. “I thought he was guilty because he acted too forgiving after his release, which seemed false. I would be very angry, as I suspect he was, and I doubt prison teaches you to be kind. He tortured a cat, so he lacked empathy in that respect and had the capability to be cruel. I suspect he thought he was untouchable once he had been exonerated and could do anything he wanted. He was arrogant not to take the stand in his defense if he was truly innocent.”

So there is a lawyer’s verdict on the central question of “Making a Murderer.” My father has not seen the show, but based on my description of the premise and the facts and he thinks similarly. While I still have my questions, and perhaps will never know where the truth lies, I highly recommend the show. Especially if your parents are lawyers.