In the final episode of Making a Murderer, archival footage plays of George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America asking, “What is going on in the Wisconsin Department of Justice?!?” That’s one of many questions fans of the true crime docuseries about a Wisconsin man wrongly convicted of rape who was also eventually found guilty of murder have been asking themselves, their friends, and the internet ever since all 10 episodes dropped on Netflix on Dec. 18.
The series chronicles the life of Steven Avery, a Manitowoc, Wisconsin, man who was convicted of rape in 1985 and imprisoned for 18 years, despite never wavering in his claim of innocence. Newly tested DNA evidence exonerated him in 2003 and he became a free man. But not for long. In 2005, in the midst of a $36 million civil suit Avery filed against Manitowoc County for wrongful incarceration, he found himself charged with the murder of car photographer Teresa Halbach, who was killed after she visited the Avery family’s auto salvage yard. The blame quickly spread to Avery’s young nephew, Brendan Dassey, who was later charged in the crime as well. They are both currently serving life sentences.
The two trials contained so many insane twists and turns — from accusations of evidence tampering to sexting scandals — that it takes Making a Murderer more than 10 hours to lay them out, but the three most important claims the series, and Avery and Dassey’s respective lawyers, posited, are:
1. That Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department targeted and framed Avery for the crime as retribution for long-held grudges.
2. That law enforcement coerced Dassey’s confession in an attempt to further frame Avery.
3. That there is a fundamental inequity at work in countless branches of our legal system.
It’s a story that spans more than 30 years and one that filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi have spent the last 10 turning into Making a Murderer. Since the series was released, viewers have vocalized their frustrations over the alleged law enforcement and prosecutorial misconduct in a way that closely replicates how Serial listeners questioned the guilt of Adnan Syed. The documentary has also come under fire from key players involved in the prosecution, who say that Demos and Ricciardi omitted compelling evidence that would have made the state’s case less ambiguous.
The filmmakers recently sat down with BuzzFeed News at M Cafe in Los Angeles to discuss how they executed their documentary, to respond to their critics, and to answer these pressing questions Making a Murderer viewers want to know.
1. How did they come to make this documentary?
Demos and Ricciardi first learned of Steven Avery’s case in November 2005, when it made the front page of the New York Times while they were film students at Columbia University. “I found it riveting and kept elbowing poor Moira and saying, ‘I cannot believe this,’” Ricciardi said. “The focus of that story was the backlash the Wisconsin Innocence Project was experiencing as a result of having been instrumental in freeing Steven. Of course, as it got deeper into the article, I realized that there was an apparent conflict of interest between the county and him.”
So Ricciardi called the Manitowoc County Clerk’s Office and discovered reporters were allowed to watch, and given access to, video footage from inside the courtroom. The two headed to Wisconsin in November 2005 to attend Avery’s preliminary hearing (which is seen at the beginning of Episode 3 of Making a Murderer). In February 2006, Avery’s trial was scheduled for that September. Demos and Ricciardi were packing up to return home and await that date when they got an unexpected call saying the law enforcement were going to hold a press conference.
“We couldn’t figure out why they were holding a press conference,” Demos said. “They hadn’t held one for three and a half months.” That was when officials first named Dassey as a suspect in Halbach’s murder. “It caught everyone off guard,” Demos said. “It caught the family off guard, as you can see — they’re reeling from it. At that point, we knew that this was going to be more than we had thought.”
The two decided to move to Wisconsin. “Part of that was so we could be there for every court date and every development, but also so that we could start to reach out to subjects and do interviews about the past and go through archival materials,” Ricciardi explained.
2. How did they gain such intimate access to the Avery family?
Throughout the documentary, the Avery family — most notably Steven’s parents, Delores and Allan, and Brendan Dassey’s mother, Barb Tadych — are incredibly press averse. But Demos and Ricciardi not only secured repeated interviews with them, they also filmed them in their homes.
“Steven wanted his voice to be heard and he was sort of a gatekeeper in terms of our access to the family,” Ricciardi said of their unique access. “As with most of the subjects who became sit-down subjects, we would reach out with a letter. We wrote to Steven while he was in the county jail — this was after his preliminary hearing and he had just learned in December of 2005 that there was enough evidence to hold him for trial. He knew he was facing mandatory life should he be convicted, so things were pretty bleak for him and the stakes were very high. I would say he was immediately open to us and made it possible for us to meet his mother and his brother. We drove out to the yard and visited with them in the shop and basically, through that, we were able to find a way in.
“I think what they seemed to respond well to was that it was so clear we were not there to judge. There was no sense of urgency on our part — we could take our time. We were there to listen, we were as respectful as we could be, we would make appointments with them, and it wasn’t as if we would drive up and start filming the second we got out of the car. We just started to build a rapport with the family and it was incredible. They were incredibly gracious to us. They had this 40-acre lot, which was not only their business, but also their home. They opened all of it up to us.”
The series goes to great lengths to demonstrate how the trials affected not only the defendants, but their families as well. “They were in such a unique position because they had already lived through a wrongful imprisonment for 18 years. And one of the things we both learned was when someone with such a support system goes to prison in a situation like that, it’s not as if that person alone is suffering — the whole family is suffering,” Ricciardi added. “It affected the family’s reputation, how they felt when they went out into the community; it affected their business. So for them to find themselves back in that position again, it was very tragic. Steven was our protagonist, but in a way, we had a group protagonist because Steven was actually incarcerated the whole time we were filming. We spent some of our most intimate time with his family. We felt a tremendous sense of responsibility to tell their story as accurately as possible and to just be fair to them and not caricature them in any way or judge them in any way.”
When asked about the claim Michael O’Kelly — an investigator hired by Dassey’s original lawyer, Len Kachinsky — read in an email during the 10th episode that the Averys are “criminals” and “engaged in sexual activities with nieces, nephews, cousins, in-laws,” the otherwise even-keeled Demos grew immediately angry. “That statement is incredibly offensive,” she said. “This family has deep bonds, an incredibly sound moral system, and has been vilified by people who don’t know them.”
3. Did they intentionally tone down Steven Avery’s past crimes?
One of the chief critiques of the series from those with intimate knowledge of the case is that the filmmakers gloss over some of the less savory aspects of Avery’s criminal past in order to make him a more sympathetic figure. For example, the first episode briefly discusses an incident where 20-year-old Avery pleaded guilty to harming an animal. In the series, Avery is heard saying, “We were fooling around with the cat and I don’t know, they were kind of negging it on and I tossed him over the fire and he lit up. I was young and stupid.” In reality, Avery and another man pleaded no contest to pouring gasoline and oil on Avery’s cat and throwing it into a fire.
“His priors, the thing that happened at the bonfire with the cat, running his cousin off the road… not smart things to do,” Demos said. “It was really important to us to make sure we didn’t leave those things out. I don’t think you necessarily have to dive in on his side, but at the same time, you show all his flaws and then you show what others are doing to him and how they’re spinning what he’s doing and I think that’s where people get sucked in.”
Demos said she and Ricciardi thought Avery was a compelling protagonist because of — not in spite of — his past misdeeds. “I would add that in some ways that’s part of the point,” she continued. “If you want to push him away at the start and by Episode 10, you care about him, you’ve grown as a person and that’s really important.”
The filmmakers faced a huge problem right off the bat in making a documentary about Steven Avery: They had almost no access to him as they were repeatedly denied visitations. One way they got around that problem was through the use of audio interviews that make Avery’s point of view — captured throughout the trial — front and center in the documentary.
“All calls they made from the county jail or the juvenile detention center are recorded, so we have thousands of hours of phone calls,” Demos said. “Basically interviews that Laura was doing — we do take out Laura’s questions. Some of what Steven is saying, he’s saying to reporters — he did do a few calls with local reporters over the course of a year and a half. When it’s a conversation between Barb and Brendan, that’s just a recorded call between Barb and Brendan. We didn’t hear it until a year later.”
Getting such a huge piece of the puzzle more than a year after the fact was incredibly illuminating for the filmmakers: It not only gave them insight into Avery and Dassey’s emotional state from outside the walls, but it also revealed that many members of the Avery family were ill-equipped to be dealing with such life-or-death stakes. “I remember the first time we listened to some of the calls where she’s confronting him over the phone, like, ‘Did you do this?’ As somebody with a legal background, I’m thinking, Don’t ask your son that over the phone!” Ricciardi recalled.
“It was amazing that this family was even remotely trusting of law enforcement when this had all happened to them,” Demos said. “I think class and education are just two ways one can be vulnerable.”
“We would be shocked sometimes,” Ricciard added. “It would be one thing to hear Brendan ask Barb, when he’d have an upcoming court date, if he would get out as a result of his pretrial court date. But to then hear the adults talk about that… There were times when Mrs. Avery would bring clothes to court for Steven because she thought he might get out that day. You would think that because this is a family that has been through it once before, they’ve been educated by the system, and in fact, they still didn’t know any better.”
“I don’t think I do ever feel physically unsafe, but I think part of it was we were very public,” Demos said. “We were there all the time filming. Everybody knew we were there. We were collaborating with the media. There was a certain sense of what it would look like if I suddenly wasn’t there. And that was really the only source of safety, to just be out there.”
But the government did certainly go out of their way to try and quash their documentary. In the fall of 2006, the state essentially tried to subpoena the footage. So Demos and Ricciardi hired a lawyer. “The state wanted any statement Steven made … and statements by others who might have knowledge or claim to have knowledge about who was responsible for the death of Teresa Halbach,” Ricciardi said. “Our argument in trying to get the court to throw out the subpoena is that the state has access to all of this material. Steven is currently incarcerated. All of his calls, all of his visits are being recorded, so they don’t need to get that from us. It was a fishing expedition, and we really think it was an effort by the state to shut down our production. There was a way in which, on the one hand, Wisconsin is a very media-friendly state. It was great for us that cameras were allowed in the courtroom, it was great for us that they had a very expansive public records law so we could get the types of materials [we did]. On the other hand, the people on the ground, the people in power, weren’t always happy we were there.”
6. Did they consciously omit evidence that was used to convict Avery?
To the layperson, it appears that most of the physical evidence — Halbach’s mysteriously appearing car key, Avery’s blood in her car, the lack of Halbach’s blood in Avery’s garage — that led to Avery’s murder conviction is questionable. Ken Kratz, the former Calumet County district attorney who prosecuted this case, said in an interview following the documentary’s release that the filmmakers ignored almost 90% of the physical evidence that he used to convict Avery of the homicide.
“I would say that Ken Kratz is entitled to his opinion, but he’s not entitled to his own facts,” Ricciardi said in response to Kratz’s interview. Another point of contention is that Kratz said he was never asked to participate in the documentary, though he repeatedly appeared in archival and courtroom footage. Ricciardi refuted that allegation — and said they have proof. In gathering court documents, the filmmakers had to file dozens of motions, which became part of the trial’s permanent record, and in one of those is “our letter to Ken Kratz from September 2006 inviting him to participate,” Ricciardi said. “We wanted to speak to lawyers, we wanted to speak to judges, we wanted to speak to law enforcement, we invited the Halbachs to sit down with us, we had coffee with Mike [Halbach, Teresa’s brother], and ultimately, people could decide for themselves whether they wanted to participate. But how would you feel if you invited someone to participate, they declined, and later said, ‘I’m not in it?’”
It is also revealed in the final episode that Kratz — who has become the subject of many fans’ ire since the release of Making a Murderer — engaged in sexual text messages with a domestic violence victim when he was prosecuting her abuser. The case gained national attention and led to the governor of Wisconsin seeking Kratz’s removal from office in 2010 — a development the filmmakers had to figure out how to include without turning it into a “gotcha” moment. “It certainly didn’t shape how we portrayed what had already happened,” Demos said. “We made the decision that the only thing that mattered with that is the way it affected these cases. You could have had a whole 20-minute thing about it that would have just been a tangent, so we tried to include what was relevant to the story.”
Ricciardi added, “We did not want it to be perceived as a low blow for Ken Kratz. It really needed to be relevant to the story and we hope this story works on multiple levels: There’s Steven’s whole throughline, but then there’s also the opportunity to look at the system itself and the question was, How is this particular community going to respond when news like this breaks? What we thought was so interesting is after the AP reporter, Ryan Foley, broke the story, it became public soon thereafter that the Department of Justice knew for a year and covered it up.”
“That felt like, ‘Oh, here we go again,’” Demos said.
7. Do they believe there’s a vast government conspiracy at work?
If, as many viewers believe, countless state witnesses and officials lied and coerced in an attempt to frame Steven Avery, one could conclude that there must be a vast government conspiracy at work in Wisconsin. The filmmakers, however, do not believe this to be the case. “As [Avery’s defense lawyer] Jerry Buting said, it could be done by one or two people,” Demos said. “If the mode of operation is not that there are strict rules of justice and we just follow them no matter how we feel about them, if people are willing to go along or not challenge their supervisor, or not say, ‘He didn’t do those other things, he probably didn’t do this,’ it’s a pretty murky area where it’s more about a character assessment than really looking at the facts. And one thing can tip that and it’ll just be a snowball effect without people feeling like they’re colluding or part of any conspiracy.”
Ricciardi added, “There’s so much room for abuse if there’s malfeasance and people are operating with impunity.”
8. Who killed Teresa Halbach?
After spending more than 10 years of their lives in the minutiae of this case, Demos and Ricciardi are undeniable experts in everything Avery — so do they have a theory as to who killed Teresa Halbach? “I don’t have a theory, but I don’t feel like what the prosecution presented is a convincing narrative — especially since there were two narratives presented,” Demos said. “I don’t know how I can be satisfied with that. I feel beyond terrible for Teresa and her family, first that something terrible happened to her but that we don’t know what it is and that has not been solved.”
And that’s a very important point in the eyes of the filmmakers. “Potentially, the Halbachs are victims because they don’t know what happened to their daughter. Potentially, Steven and Brendan are victims because they are potentially in prison for something they didn’t do,” Demos said. “But if all of those things are true, that means whoever did this is still out there, and you should care about that whether you care about Steven or Brendan or Teresa — for your own sake.”
9. Why didn’t they talk to more jurors?
The jury is a big question mark in the latter half of the series. The doc informs viewers that, at the start of deliberations, seven people believed Avery was innocent. But in the end, three jurors were able to sway the collective into guilty votes. “How did seven people get swayed?” Demos wondered aloud. “The one person who talks about what was going on [an excused juror named Richard Mahler] says that the three who said guilty refused to deliberate. And if they weren’t going to change their minds, what could the other seven do?”
Both Demos and Ricciardi feel the verdict itself was confusing: Avery was found guilty of murder but rendered innocent for mutilating the body. “What story are they telling about what happened to this woman?” Ricciardi said, adding that she’s long viewed it as a compromise between the jurors — a theory she’s been unable to prove because the jurors “entered into a pact, essentially, and would not speak publicly about their process.”
Ricciardi continued, “If it’s an unjust process, how will you know what has emerged is the truth? That’s really the question. I don’t think you can have truth without justice, so the question is: Can we trust the verdicts in either case?”
But some jurors ended up coming to Brendan’s trial, and the filmmakers take that as a sign they had lingering doubts about Avery’s guilt. “They clearly had questions after delivering an answer,” Demos said.
Aside from the allegation that the law enforcement framed Avery for Halbach’s murder, there’s undeniable proof that certain members failed in their duties. For example, Sgt. Andrew Colborn ignored a call from another office that could have freed Avery from his original incarceration much earlier, and Sg. Jason Orth’s log of visitors to the crime scene was lacking, to say the least. But to the filmmakers’ knowledge, no one was reprimanded or demoted as a result.
“It’s quite the opposite, actually,” Demos said. “People received awards. I think Kratz was named prosecutor of the year for winning the case; Tom Fassbender received an award for his role as an investigator on this case. So, no — their careers have been bolstered by this case.”
“And they’ve been promoted,” Ricciardi added. “I believe Colburn is a lieutenant now in the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department.” Lt. James Lenk has since retired.
11. Do they hope citizens will investigate the case as well?
In the aftermath of the documentary’s release, the Innocence Project is looking into some aspects of Avery’s case, countless Reddit threads have begun digging into the details, and the hacker group that goes by the name Anonymous is reported to be looking into the case as well. “We weren’t there to solve the crime, we were there to document the experience of being accused in this country,” Demos said. “We’ll never know what happened on Oct. 31, but what we could do was document what the state and the prosecution was doing,” Ricciardi added.
“We’d always hoped the series would promote a dialogue,” she continued. “The idea that people might take it upon themselves to do some research or want to look into things more, I think that’s really exciting, too. Because there’s so much rhetoric out there about the public having apathy about these things, and there’s so many programs that are devoted to the sensational. Part of what’s so exciting and refreshing about the response we’re getting is we made a series where we, first and foremost, cared about the integrity of the project, and accuracy and fairness were the two guiding principles. And to have people respond, to have this outpouring of support, is really great, and I think it speaks to how we as a culture are not apathetic about these things. We do care. We do want to get involved. We do want things to change for the better. And that’s really great.”
With both Avery’s and Dassey’s cases active in the judicial system, the 10th episode is hardly the end of the story, and the filmmakers plan to keep telling it. “We’ll have to see what’s happening, but we do intend to continue to follow this story, the response to it, whether things change in their cases, or whether things happen in the justice system as a result of this. Because this is about our system, and we’re just using these cases as an example,” Demos said. “I mean, if you look at Twitter, there’s so much talk about Wisconsin and Manitowoc, but people just need to look in their own town. I guarantee it’s no different.”
And that, more than anything else, is the reason Demos and Ricciardi wanted to tell this story: to expose a broken system that not only fails to protect the innocent, but can be wielded like a weapon by the corrupt. “There are no systems in place to protect us — if we don’t demand they work the way they’re supposed to, what’s there is not going to do us any good,” Demos said. “I feel like spending these years in Wisconsin documenting this case, going deeper than what the press conference said, getting into documents, I will never look at this process the same again. Some people do seem to be profoundly affected by watching it. Our intention was not only to start a dialogue, but to give people an experience. This journey we’ve taken has changed us, and if everybody had gone on this journey, the system would be better.”
Avery pleaded no contest to pouring gasoline and oil on a cat and throwing it into a fire. A previous version of this story misstated that he pleaded guilty.
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