How 'Making a Murderer' made a mockery of the justice system

Filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi exploited a murder, ruined reputations, and misled the public


Article updated October 16, 2018

On Halloween in 2005, Steven Avery lured a 25-year-old woman to his home, murdered her and burnt her remains. It was as evil an act as a human being is capable of and he will fittingly spend the rest of his life in prison.

Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi exploited Avery’s crime for personal gain, and did so in a manner that insulted the victim, ridiculed the victim’s family and demonized the officers who investigated the crime. They remain at large, but no less despicable than Avery.

In this March 13, 2007 file photo, Steven Avery listens to testimony in the courtroom at the Calumet County Courthouse in Chilton, Wis. (AP Image)
In this March 13, 2007 file photo, Steven Avery listens to testimony in the courtroom at the Calumet County Courthouse in Chilton, Wis. (AP Image)

A Wisconsin jury reviewed the evidence and determined that Avery was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. That’s how criminal courts work. The rest of the nation reviewed a 10-hour Netflix documentary stitched together by Demos and Ricciardi and determined that Avery was innocent, the police framed an innocent man, the people of Wisconsin are idiots, defense attorneys are pillars of integrity and Netflix is the supreme arbiter of truth and justice. That’s how the court of public opinion works. If you want to know which court has more reach, 12 jurors voted to convict Avery in the criminal court and more than 480,000 people have signed a petition to have him released.

Making a Murderer is a story they could sell

The facts of the case were presented to that Wisconsin jury in 2007. The prosecution presented evidence of Avery’s guilt. The defense ignored a lot of that evidence, accused police of fabricating the rest, and did what they could to confuse and misdirect the jury into finding a reasonable doubt that did not exist.

You can’t get mad about that. It’s what they do. It’s like getting mad at my wife’s dog for pooping in the den. It would be nice if she wasn’t a terrible dog, but she is and I know it. It’s my responsibility to close the door and keep her out.

It would be nice if defense attorneys weren’t dishonest hucksters trying to confuse jurors into setting dangerous criminals free. But they are and we know it, so it’s our job to close the door on them with thorough investigations and solid cases.

But Demos and Ricciardi aren’t attorneys. They are not a necessary evil of an imperfect justice system. They are opportunists. They were following the story of a man who was convicted of a rape that he didn’t commit. It was a sad and compelling story. Not only was Avery sent to prison for a rape he didn’t commit, but the actual rapist went on to commit other heinous crimes. They could have told that story without exploiting a tragedy. But the ending didn’t happen like they were expecting.

Avery was supposed to take his freedom, a large settlement from Manitowoc County and his minor fame and live happily ever after as a champion of the wrongfully accused. Instead, he brutally murdered a woman before the settlement even came.

Demos and Ricciardi couldn’t sell a story with that ending. Stories need heroes, or lessons, or calls to action. They had none of it. They had an awful man who committed an awful crime. His previous wrongful conviction was reduced to a minor point in the plot of a larger story about an evil man. A story nobody was particularly interested in hearing. 

Demos and Ricciardi had wasted countless hours and dollars on a documentary they couldn’t sell. It was impossible to feel sorry for Avery once you found out what he did. But rather than dismiss their efforts as a sunk cost born of misplaced faith and bad luck, they went another direction.

They crafted a different story, with different facts, different villains, new heroes, and a rousing call to action. It wasn’t true and they had to have known it. But it was a story they could sell. Now it’s a national phenomenon and Demos and Ricciardi will get flooded with funding for whatever project they choose to make next. Consequences be damned.

I will give Demos and Ricciardi credit for telling a fascinating story. I watched all 10 episodes over the course of a week and couldn’t look away from the television. I distrust attorneys, doubt the media, and have been a police officer for nine years. Even I came away feeling sick. You can’t watch that show without feeling like a great injustice occurred in Wisconsin. It did. But it was committed by Demos and Ricciardi, not the criminal justice system.

This is a summary of the important facts that were presented in the documentary and in subsequent media interviews by the prosecutor, Ken Kratz:

  • Teresa Halbach worked as a photographer for "AutoTrader" magazine. On the afternoon of October 31, 2005, she went to the salvage yard where Avery lived to photograph a car Avery’s sister was selling. Avery lived in a trailer on the property; other family members lived in other homes throughout the property.
  • Avery called "AutoTrader" to set up the appointment and specifically requested Halbach. Halbach had previously told coworkers that Avery had met her wearing only a towel for a previous appointment and that she felt uncomfortable with him.
  • Avery made the appointment in his sister’s name.
  • Avery called Halbach’s cell phone twice on October 31, before her arrival, but used the *67 function to disguise his number. He called again after she had arrived, but did not disguise the number.
  • Halbach arrived at the appointment and her vehicle was seen there by multiple witnesses.
  • No witnesses claimed to have seen her after her car was seen at the salvage yard.
  • Witnesses saw a fire outside of Avery’s trailer that night.
  • Most of Halbach’s burnt remains were found in burn pile outside of Avery’s trailer. Other remains of what were apparently her bones were found at two other sites in the junkyard.
  • Halbach’s cell phone and other personal effects were found in a burn barrel outside of Avery’s trailer.
  • Halbach’s vehicle was found among the junk vehicles in the Avery salvage yard.
  • A key to Halbach’s car was found in Avery’s bedroom.
  • Avery’s blood was found in the car, other non-blood DNA was found on the hood latch.
  • A bullet fragment with Halbach’s DNA was found in Avery’s garage. It was matched to a rifle found in Avery’s trailer.
  • Avery’s 16-year-old nephew confessed to helping Avery rape, kill and dispose of Halbach. The portions of the confession shown in the documentary do not match the evidence of the case.

Smoke and Mirrors

It would be nearly impossible for a reasonable person to review that list and doubt Avery’s guilt. Demos and Ricciardi found a way around it. They disregarded that list and presented only the evidence that could be refuted with smoke and mirrors. The rest, they would later claim, they did not have time for. It was a ten-hour documentary. Hours of it were filler.

Avery’s attorneys attacked the keys and the blood evidence by suggesting that they were planted by Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Deputies. According to Avery’s defense team, the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office was framing Avery because it would somehow help them out of the lawsuit he filed. Demos and Ricciardi took that and ran wild with it.

They were careful not to say that the sheriff’s deputies actually killed Halbach, but they were happy to imply it heavily enough that a sufficiently paranoid person might believe it. They did the same with Halbach’s ex-boyfriend, her brother and any other person who they were able to cast a little suspicion onto.

Unsavory Characters

The Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office did not do themselves any favors. They recognized how it would be perceived if they participated in the investigation, yet they participated anyway. I don’t believe for a second that they planted evidence, but most of the country does and they have no way to disprove it. It’s a steep price to pay for a fairly innocuous mistake (assuming they didn’t plant any evidence), but there is no way to predict how these things will play out in today’s media age. Especially after the success of “Making a Murderer”, copycat filmmakers with cameras and no conscience are going to take notice.

Demos and Ricciardi also brutalized the prosecutor, Kratz, for his questionable tactics during the investigation and his indefensible behavior later in his career. He wasn’t a hard target. Kratz was infuriating from the moment he appeared on screen. Avery’s attorneys were both articulate, well-spoken, and likeable. How does that support Avery’s case though? No juror would have enjoyed siding with Kratz. That they did anyway should show just how overwhelming the evidence was.

Demos and Ricciardi played up the fact that Avery’s IQ was low enough that clinically speaking, he was a talking onion. They used this to argue that he could not possibly have masterminded such a brilliantly executed crime. But it wasn’t a brilliantly executed crime. He left exactly the types of evidence that you would expect a talking onion to leave in a murder.

Then they argued that nobody would be dumb enough to leave the victim’s car in the salvage yard or the burnt remains outside of his property. I beg to differ. A talking onion would be precisely that dumb. Particularly when rushed by an impending murder investigation. Bodies don’t burn as easily or thoroughly as one might expect. A crushed car is not crushed to dust. Flattening the victim’s car would not have gotten rid of it.

Avery’s supporters have latched onto the idea that his nephew’s confession was coerced and further proof of Avery’s innocence. The crime described by Avery’s nephew in “Making a Murderer” did not happen. The investigation definitively showed that Halbach’s throat was not slit on Avery’s bed, as claimed by the nephew. But that claim was part of what the filmmakers claimed was four hours of interviews. The filmmakers chose to include a brief admission that did not match the crime scene. A jury saw all of the evidence, not just a brief excerpt from his confession, and convicted Avery’s nephew of participating in the murder. I am inclined to trust an impartial jury over a pair of opportunists scrounging for an angle to sell.

Demos and Ricciardi have stood by “Making A Murderer” in the press. Why wouldn’t they? It made them famous and virtually guaranteed that they will get financing for future projects. "Making a Murderer Part Two" is another 10-part Netflix documentary which debuted in October, 2018.

They exploited a murder, ruined reputations, and misled the public. I hope history remembers them for that, and Avery as the murderer that he is. But I fear the court of public opinion has already ruled, and the truth has no avenue of appeal in that system.

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