***Note: Contains Making a Murderer Spoilers***
Making a Murderer is a national obsession—a riveting, visually stunning masterpiece of documentary filmmaking.
But it is also one of the more slanted, one-sided pieces of storytelling in recent memory, establishing its narrative that an innocent man was twice framed within the first two minutes of the series.
"We knew he was innocent," his mother tells viewers. "We knew he was innocent."
"Law enforcement despised Steven Avery," adds one of Avery's attorneys. "Steven Avery was a shining example of their inadequacies, their misconduct."
"I did tell him, 'Be careful.' There was just something I felt," adds Avery's cousin. "I said, 'Manitowoc County's not done with you. They are not even close to being finished with you.'"
Those first three soundbites before the opening theme song is even played set the tone of the first episode, which focuses on Avery being freed after 18 years of incarceration for a 1985 rape that DNA evidence subsequently proved he did not commit.
The audience hears portions of interviews with Steven Avery, his mother, his father, his cousin, his public defender, his post-conviction lawyer, his civil rights attorney, and upwards of a dozen more people who would be expected to stand up for him and portray him as a sympathetic figure.
In fact, of all of the people interviewed in Episode 1, only two—former Manitowoc County Circuit Court Judge Fred Hazelwood and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Tom Kertscher could possibly be considered unbiased. Literally everyone else has a vested interest in introducing Avery as a good man targeted by a bad criminal justice system.
Only Steven Avery wasn’t a good man.
"Another mistake I did...I had a bunch of friends over, and we were fooling around with the cat... and, I don't know, they were kind of negging it on," Avery explains. "I tossed him over the fire... and he lit up. You know, it was the family cat. I was young and stupid and hanging around with the wrong people.
The series glosses over that incident and allows Avery to dismiss it as simply an accident while a bunch of kids goofed around. In reality, it was a brutal act of violence. Avery did not, as he claimed, simply threw the cat through a bonfire.
He doused it in oil and gasoline and put it in the fire in an apparent attempt at watching it suffer a horrific death.
Psychiatrists warn that acts of violence against animals are often precursors to acts of violence toward people, and a number of scientific studies back this up.
In other words, an act such as Avery’s could have in fact been the very first makings of a murderer, but Making a Murderer refuses to explore this.
It is also interesting to note that an 18 year-old Avery killed the cat in the exact same manner in which he would later be accused of disposing of Teresa Halbach’s body.
"Stevie did stupid things," his cousin tells filmmakers. "But he always, always, always owned up to everything he did wrong."
Actually, he didn’t. He tried to explain his animal cruelty away, as he did with two burglaries, and the series lets him—presenting only his own family members and attorneys to give any of the incidents any context; context which, unsurprisingly, is sympathetic, understanding, and dismissive.
Moreover, the show glosses over Avery’s increasingly sexually aggressive and violent behavior towards women.
In January of 1985, his cousin accused him of masturbating in front of her as she drove past his home.
When she told others about this at a local bar, Avery became enraged and chased her down, running her car off the road with his car, then getting out and pointing a gun at her head.
Only Sandra Morris—the victim—isn’t allowed to explain what happened to her. Instead, the series once again allows Avery to explain away a violent incident.
The series implies that Avery was somehow the victim here; that because Morris was telling people about an incident in which her cousin sexually harassed her, he was somehow justified in slamming his car into hers and then threatening her.
More troublingly, the series also suggests that the only reason that this incident is ever prosecuted is because Morris was married to a part-time Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Deputy; as if running someone off the road and then threatening them with a handgun would and should normally be ignored.
Who is making this allegation? Why Avery’s attorney, of course.
"Steven's actions didn't get what he was hoping," says Avery's public defender Reesa Evans. "Sandy Morris happened to be married to a Manitowoc County sheriff's deputy. And she immediately went to the Sheriff's Department and filed a complaint... that minimized her involvement in provoking the incident and maximized the alleged danger."
Later in 1985, of course, Avery is charged with raping Penny Beernsten as Beernsten jogs along a beach in Manitowoc County.
Making a Murderer alleges that the only reason Avery was ever a suspect in the first place was because of Sandra Morris’ prior allegation; that her friend, a Manitowoc Sheriff’s Deputy fingered Avery in spite of what Penny Beernsten was saying.
The show, however, doesn’t focus at all on the fact that Avery and Beernsten’s actual rapist, Gregory Allen, bear a striking resemblance to each other and that when Beernsten was describing her attacker—a man with shaggy blond hair and a beard—she was describing a man with whom investigators were already familiar; a man who had sexually harassed his cousin and then violently threatened her when she dared talk about it, a man who had brutally killed his family’s cat, a man who had been convicted of two burglaries all within the past few years.
Steven Avery fit the description that the victim provided and he had been growing increasingly sexually violent. It was entirely logical for law enforcement to suspect him of this crime, which took place near his home.
Avery did have a very good alibi, but the series makes it seem as though it was unreasonable for investigators not to believe the family members who said they were with him for the entire day that Beernsten was raped.
In yet another example of Making a Murderer minimizing or ignoring anything that would make Avery or his family look at all unsympathetic, the series does not explain that Avery’s brothers, Charles and Earl, were also well known to law enforcement, which would have had reason not to trust them.
Three years after Steven was convicted of the rape, Charles was charged with sexual assault but acquitted. In 1999, his former wife accused him of sexually assaulting her and wrapping a telephone cord around his neck. A deferred prosecution agreement saved him from serving prison time.
In 1992, Earl pleaded no contest to battery and fourth degree sexual assault after attacking his wife.
Do these sound like entirely credible witnesses? Or would it have been logical for investigators to believe that they were lying to protect their brother?
And their brother, Steven himself, apparently didn’t think too much of them. In an appellate filing in 2009, he suggested that either Charles or Earl might have actually killed Teresa Halbach.
Beernsten was also able to pick Avery out of a lineup. His face looked a great deal like Allen’s, and Beernsten was obviously panicked and under a tremendous amount of stress as she was being raped, potentially making it very difficult to remember precise details of either her attack or her attacker.
This is a very common phenomenon, especially in sexual assault cases, which is why forensic evidence is now so important in securing convictions. In 1985, though, such evidence such as DNA testing simply was not available.
Hence, the case against Avery hinged not on Manitowoc County wrongdoing, but almost entirely on Beernsten’s identification of him, an identification that turned out to be incorrect.
While Avery was in prison, the series also glossed over his continued violent and threatening behavior, again allowing him to explain it away.
In one letter to his estranged wife, he wrote, “I hate you, you got your divorce now you will pay for it.” In another, he wrote, “If you don’t brang [sic] up my kids I will kill you. I promis [sic]. Ha. Ha.”
Again, a pattern of threatening behavior toward women emerges, but Making a Murderer refuses to show how it may have made Avery into a murderer.
His fellow inmates said he talked openly about wanting to rape, torture, and kill women, and said he “drew diagrams [of a] torture chamber” that he planned to build once he was released. He also reportedly said that he knew how to get rid of a body...by burning it in a fire pit.