The UW-Madison law professor who helped free Steven Avery after a wrongful conviction in the 1980s says “Making a Murderer,” the Netflix documentary about his 2007 homicide trial, illustrates problems in the criminal justice system that affect many cases beyond Avery’s.
Professor Keith Findley, a co-director of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, said his organization is not currently representing Avery, whose supporters say was wrongfully convicted in the 2005 death of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach.
But Findley said he has talked recently with Avery’s attorneys, Dean Strang and Jerome Buting, and noted the innocence project could revisit Avery’s case in the future, should new evidence come to light.
“We’re always open to reconsidering and reexamining any case,” Findley said.
He also said deciding not to take up the case does not necessarily mean project members believe Avery is guilty. The project could pass on the case if there isn’t new evidence available to support a demand for another trial, Findley said, or because another legal organization would be better suited for it.
“Making a Murderer,” which premiered on Netflix last month, recounts Avery’s conviction for a 1985 sexual assault in Manitowoc County and his release from prison 18 years later after the Wisconsin Innocence Project used DNA evidence to exonerate him.
It then follows the 2005 disappearance and death of Halbach, whose remains were found on Avery’s property, as well as the investigation and trials that ended with Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey sentenced to life in prison for homicide.
Law enforcement officials who were involved in the Halbach case have criticized the 10-part documentary series, which is told from the perspective of Avery’s family and defense team.
Findley said he has watched “Making a Murderer,” and thought it did a good job showcasing some of the “recurring flaws in the criminal justice system” more broadly.
Those flaws include the potential for investigators to coerce false confessions from suspects, and the possibility of errors in analyzing forensic evidence, Findley said, though he stopped short of saying that’s what happened in the Avery and Dassey cases. “In a way, this case wasn’t unique in the sense that those issues occur in routine, everyday cases in our criminal justice system,” he said.
Findley said the series also shows a facet of the judicial system he knows well from his work with the Wisconsin Innocence Project. “The system is just not designed to exonerate wrongfully convicted people,” he said. “It is designed — once the conviction is obtained — to preserve that conviction.”