By Emily Duren
Halloween, life sentences, and Kathleen Zellner. Those are the things that Ryan Ferguson and Steven Avery have in common. The difference is, one of them is now a personal trainer living in Florida, the other is behind bars in Wisconsin, and the subject of the hit Netflix docuseries Making a Murderer.
If you’ve spent many an hour binge watching the ins and outs of the Avery case, you know it’s an incredibly twisted web with so many people that near the end, it was almost impossible to keep track of them all. Here are the people you need to know: Teresa Halbach, the victim, Steven Avery, accused murderer, Brendan Dassey, accused accomplice to the murder and Avery’s nephew, Sgt. Andrew Colborn, a cop in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, and Gregory Allen, the man eventually convicted in the Avery rape case.
On Halloween night 2001, Kent Heitholt, a sportswriter at the Columbia Daily Tribune, in Columbia, Missouri, was beaten to death in a parking lot. Seventeen-year-old Ryan Ferguson— along with his acquaintance, Charles Erickson, who implicated both himself and Ferguson in the murder, based solely on a dream he had— received life sentences. His conviction was vacated in November 2014, after his new attorney, Kathleen Zellner, convinced the courts that his civil rights had been violated in the original trial (both Erickson and another witness testified that they were pressured into giving false testimony that incriminated Ferguson.)
Fast forward four years from the day of the Heitholt murder, many miles away, in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Teresa Halbach, a photographer, is assigned a job from Auto Trader. She’s to go to Avery Auto Salvage to meet with Steven Avery. Avery was infamous in the area for a rape conviction in 1987, but was released from prison in 2003 after DNA matched another man. She was never seen alive again, and when her remains were found (in a pit on the Avery property), they had been burned so badly that the medical examiner couldn’t determine how a cause of death. Her green Rav4 was found on the property, which contained small amounts of Avery’s blood and sweat, her key was also found on the floor of Avery’s bedroom.
This is what we know for sure. Everything else is either circumstantial or speculation. Have states won convictions on less? Absolutely. However, my motto is, and will always be, ‘I would rather see a criminal on the street than an innocent man in prison.’ Is he innocent? I don’t know, and I’m not trying to determine that. And I can’t determine that. That’s why I wanted to write this. A lot of people are making snap judgements based on the documentary, saying he’s innocent, others going as far as to say that President Obama needs to pardon him—which isn’t within his power, by the way, that would be up to Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin—But, is he? A Google search shows that a lot of evidence that would portray Avery in a more guilty light was left out, as well as parts of his past: It’s never mentioned that Halbach’s personal belongings, like her phone and PDA, were also found burned. Nor did it ever come up that, at age 22, Avery and his cousin were arrested for dousing their live cat in kerosine and throwing it into a fire, qualifying him for the Macdonald Triad of Sociopathy, which has been known to have a correlation to homicidal behavior later in life.
However, was Avery given a fair trial? Well, that’s where Kathleen Zellner comes into play, but I’m inclined to say no.
Let me walk you through a few points:
The trial was held in Manitowoc. Come. On. Generally speaking, if you’re accused of committing a crime in County A, your trial is held in County A. However, if you’re accused of committing a crime in County A, and County A already wrongly accused and convicted you of rape, your trial for the new crime should probably be held in counties B-Z. The problem here is that even though Avery was exonerated in the rape case, the people in his town still saw him as a rapist, because they were told that’s what he was. People who know you as a rapist have very few reservations about seeing you as a murderer. Less than those who only knew him as “Steven Avery” would have.
Sgt. Andrew Colborn being allowed to participate in any part of the investigation, whatsoever, is a travesty. This has “tainted” written all over it. Oh, Sgt. Colborn, how I loathe thee. Arguably, had it not been for his misgivings, Steven Avery wouldn’t have been convicted in the rape case to begin with. While on duty, he took a call saying that there was a man other than Steven Avery— named Gregory Allen— that the sheriff’s office should look into, and Sgt. Colborn never pursued the lead, or told his superiors about it. Oh, and Gregory Allen was later convicted of that rape… after Avery spent nearly two decades in prison for it. So, why was Sgt. Colborn allowed to participate in this case in any capacity? There’s also the unexplained fact of Sgt. Colborn calling in Teresa Halbach’s license plate before her car is found.
And, the most damning evidence, to me, on which my opinion is mostly built… is Brendan Dassey, Steven Avery’s nephew who, at the time of the murder, was 16 years old, and was coerced into giving a confession that implicated Avery as well (Dassey was also convicted of murdering Halbach and received a life sentence.) In the video, two officers can be seen being verbally aggressive with Dassey, who seems to have no idea what’s going on, and thinks he’s just there to give an interview about Avery. To be honest, I thought the same thing, and when things appeared to start taking a sinister turn, whether or not Dassey and Avery are guilty, I was so disappointed in the way the detectives conducted themselves.
They told Dassey they knew something happened to Teresa’s head, and he kept giving them answers that were wrong: Avery punched her and cut her hair, until they started pressuring him for more violent answers, saying that they knew what happened, they just needed him to tell them. Well, if you, trained detectives, know what happened, why do you need a 16-year-old to tell you? Eventually he says they rape, stab,shoot her, slit her throat, and dismember her. They had to pull all of this out of a kid whose IQ is less than 70—known as feeble-minded— and thought he was going home after he admitted to murder. Yet, this interrogation was allowed to be used against Steven Avery. Why?
Ultimately, this was maddening to watch. Guilt cannot be determined in 10 episodes, but injustice can be, and there seems to have been a huge miscarriage of justice in this town. Whether or not Steven Avery is guilty, he deserves a new trial, in a different county, with all of the questionably mishandled evidence, and those linked to it, thrown out.