NOTE: I tried not to give spoilers. I did not succeed.


When my husband, Alex, noticed Making a Murderer on our ‘Recently Watched’ Netflix, he shot me an all-too-familiar look. It’s a glare mixed with skepticism, disappointment, and a touch of amused confusion at the woman he didn’t realize I was when we married several years ago.

“Really?” he says with a perceptible smile. I pull the blanket up over my face.

“Is this show going to affect you?” – a sentence uttered often from Alex. What he’s really asking: “Is this show going to keep you (therefore me) up all hours of the night, send you into therapy, and lead you to write condolence letters to people you’ve never met?”

This is Serial all over again.

serialMaking a Murderer has had a serious impact on me. The show is a ten-episode documentary series filmed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos over a period of ten years. It follows the remarkable story of Steven Avery – a poor, uneducated man from rural Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.

Here’s the framework: In 1985 Steven, age 22, is convicted of a rape and attempted murder he did not commit. He spends 18 years in prison before the Wisconsin Innocence Project takes on his case and exonerates him of the charges. A problem: once people have spent so long viewing you as a rapist and attempted murderer, it’s hard for them to forget it isn’t true.

Steven is released in 2003. He has lost 18 years of his life due to (at best) shockingly careless police proceedings, or (at worst) appalling mal-intent on the part of the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department.


With good reason, Steven files a $36 million federal lawsuit against the county, its former sheriff, and its former district attorney.

Only several days after critical depositions in the lawsuit from key players in Steven’s 1985 arrest, a young photographer named Teresa Halbach goes missing. The last person to see her? Steven Avery on his family’s auto-salvage yard. She had come by to take pictures of a van they planned to advertise in Auto Trader Magazine.

Immediately, the investigation into Teresa’s whereabouts is focused almost entirely on Steven. Not her roommate (who failed to report her missing for several days). Not her ex-boyfriend. Not on family members or other acquaintances. All eyes are on Steven. After all, he is a rapist. Or wait…no he isn’t. But he sort of looks like one and his family is dirty and loud and chock-full of chronic misbehavers. He probably did it, right?

The Avery property is searched over by officers from neighboring Calumet County, since there’s a conflict of interests in Manitowoc. Then it’s searched again, and only after police have turned the place upside down several times do they find the key to Teresa’s car in suspiciously plain sight on Steven’s bedroom floor. Later, sadly, they find her remains in a burn-pit outside of his trailer. Teresa is declared dead, at the presumed hands of Steven Avery.


You think, “There’s no way this is happening again. He’s being framed!” And Steven shouts the same thing from behind bars. But months later, as if matters don’t already look grim as ever, Steven’s 16-year old nephew (Brendan Dassey) confesses to aiding him in the rape, mutilation, and murder of Teresa Halbach.

Now go watch the show.

Finished? Good.

We are a culture obsessed with verdicts and character binaries. Guilty/Innocent? True/False? Good/Bad? Beautiful/Ugly? Rich/Poor? What’s it going to be?

This is the thrust of Making a Murderer. What’s it going to be this time? Did he do it or not?

Throughout the two days it took me to finish the series (no shame), I continued to find myself unwillingly still on Steven’s side. One piece of strange information after another spilled onto this wild, almost unbelievable storyboard: the keys that appear out of thin air – the Manitowoc police officers who keep showing up on the scene but aren’t supposed to be involved – that there’s not a spot of Teresa’s blood or DNA anywhere in Steven’s trailer. Someone could make a 10-episode documentary on all of the crazy details that unfolded! Not the least of which was Brendan who, as it turned out, was extremely intellectually challenged. When you see the video of his “questioning,” the investigators all but manipulated this poor boy into his confessions.

brenden dassey making a murderer ap

We see in Making a Murderer, time and again, people in a position of power wielding it over those who – due to money, education, class, even genetics – are not equipped to help themselves. This is old hat in America these days: we look to individuals in a place of authority – judges, jurors, lawyers, the police – to serve and protect us, and when the authorities are the ones inflicting injustice, it makes us want to scream because the world feels so hideously upside down.

The filmmakers in Making a Murderer constantly utilize shots of the Avery’s expansive 40-acre junkyard, a wasteland of broken and dysfunctional cars that mirror the broken and dysfunctional landscape laid out before us in the story. But one has to ask what’s really damaged: the Avery’s, “the system,” or all of us.

I am reminded of the last stanza from Sufjan Stevens’ song, “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” (about the infamous serial killer):

And in my best behavior,

I’m really just like him

Look beneath the floorboards

For the secrets I have hid.

This idea–that we all may be capable of something so horrendous–is terrifying, even offensive to some.

But the world is hideously upside down, isn’t it?

Ultimately, in spite of incredible evidence to the contrary, the jury finds Steven guilty and sentences him to life in prison without parole. With everything I knew at that point, I wanted to pound my chest in wholehearted sadness and disbelief.

One of Steven’s lawyers, Dean Strang, commented afterwards on the tragic lack of humility in the criminal justice system. Strang, alongside Steven’s other lawyer, strongly believed in his innocence and put up a powerful defense. But there was still the prideful assumption by the state, the judge, and the jurors that they’d “gotten it right.”

What if this was your value in society? It makes my stomach jump to my throat to imagine how Steven must think of himself, late at night when he’s trying to sleep, in the eyes of the free world outside: like the cars in his yard, worthless and condemned.

Even after all that the state prosecutor (Ken Kratz) had heard from the defense, he commented spitefully after winning the case about “the kind of person Mr. Avery is.” Innocent until proven guilty?

We discover in the final episode that Kratz was a sex addict who had harassed female clients and abused prescription drugs.

Just look beneath the floorboards for the secrets I have hid…

Thank God, though, that “He has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

After Steven’s sentencing, Strang notes with a heavy heart that “Redemption will have to wait, as it so often does in human affairs.” And I’ve had to remind myself since finishing the show that, in human affairs, this isn’t really the final word. Yes, the verdict on all of us was read long ago.



And maybe that’s why we’re drawn to shows like this, because we long for justice. But I so easily forget that justice has already been served. And it’s not on Steven Avery. It’s not on me. It’s on the shoulders of the mighty one who came to take the punishment for us all. In him, we are found innocent on all counts, every time, free as the birds who dance in the sky.


Steven says via a phone call from prison,

My dream right now is get out, buy me a lot of land, and live up in the woods. Make me a big pond so I can fish. Do my garden, and have my animals. So I don’t have to go into town and buy food. I’ll have it all right there. I guess Sandy wants to get married, so I’ll get married. And I’ll have my wife, and then my ma and my dad. I’m gonna take care of them. I really don’t need nothing else.”

Sounds a little bit like heaven, Steven. I’ll see you there.


END NOTE: Since writing this article, I’ve learned that the filmmakers left out information that some people believe negates the narrative – which, at its core, exposes deep flaws in the American criminal justice system (really, the vulnerabilities and inconsistencies of all humans). I still find this story and case to be as gray and murky as ever, and maintain hope (however naïve) that a convicted man is innocent; more importantly an assurance that each of us, flawed as ever, are made innocent by the blood of Christ.