Steven Avery (born July 9, 1962) is a man from Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, who was convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder in 1985, at the age of 22, served 18 years of a 32-year sentence, was exonerated by DNA testing, and convicted of murder in 2007.
After his release from prison in 2003, Avery filed a $36-million civil lawsuit against Manitowoc County, its sheriff, and its district attorney. In November 2005, while his civil suit was pending, he was charged and later convicted of the murder of a Wisconsin photographer and sentenced to life imprisonment without possibility of parole. Although the conviction was upheld by higher courts, a new series of appeal motions was filed in January 2016.
Avery's 2003 exoneration prompted widespread discussion of Wisconsin's criminal justice system. The Criminal Justice Reform Bill, enacted into law in 2005, implemented reforms aimed at preventing future wrongful convictions.
The 2007 murder trial and its associated issues are the focus of the Netflix original documentary series Making a Murderer, released in December 2015. Also covered in the series is the arrest and prosecution of his young nephew, Brendan Dassey, convicted in 2007 as an accessory. In August 2016, a federal judge overturned Dassey's conviction on the grounds that his confession had been unconstitutionally coerced.
Steven Avery was born in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, to Allan and Dolores Avery. Since 1965, his family has operated a salvage yard on the 40-acre property where they lived outside town. Avery has three siblings: Chuck, a younger brother Earl, and Barb (Barbara). He attended public schools in nearby Mishicot and Manitowoc, where his mother said he went to an elementary school "for slower kids". According to one of his lawyers in 1985, school records showed that his intelligence quotient (IQ) was 70, and that he "barely functioned in school".
On July 24, 1982, Avery married Lori Mathiesen, who was a single mother. They had four children together: Rachel, Jenny, and twins Steven and Will.
In March 1981, at age 18, Avery was convicted of burglarizing a bar with a friend. After serving ten months of a two-year sentence in the Manitowoc County Jail, he was released on probation and ordered to pay restitution.
In late 1982, another man admitted that he, along with Avery, took Avery's cat "and poured gas and oil on it and threw it in a bonfire and then watched it burn until it died". Avery was found guilty of animal cruelty and was jailed until August 1983. "I was young and stupid, and hanging out with the wrong people", Avery said later, of his first two incarcerations.
In January 1985, Avery's first cousin accused him of ramming his car into hers and, when she pulled over, pointing a gun at her head. She said that beginning in July 1984, Avery had, intermittently, been exposing himself to her as she drove past his house. Avery testified that the gun was not loaded, and that he was trying to stop her from spreading false rumors about him. He was sentenced to six years for "endangering safety while evincing a depraved mind", and possession of a firearm.
Wrongful sexual assault conviction
In July 1985, a woman named Penny Beerntsen was brutally attacked and sexually assaulted while jogging on a Lake Michigan beach. Avery was arrested after the victim picked him from a photo lineup, and later from a live lineup as well. Although Avery was 40 miles away in Green Bay at the time of the attack—an alibi supported by a time-stamped store receipt and 16 eyewitnesses—he was charged and ultimately convicted of rape and attempted murder, then sentenced to 32 years in prison. Appeals in 1987 and 1996 were denied by higher courts.
In 1995, a Brown County police detective called the Manitowoc County Jail, saying that an inmate named Gregory Allen, serving a 60-year sentence on a rape conviction, "had admitted committing a sexual assault years ago in Manitowoc County and that someone else was in jail for it". The jail officer informed the Manitowoc County detective bureau, but no action was taken. Deputies recalled Sheriff Kocourek telling them, “We already have the right guy. Don’t concern yourself with it.”
Avery continued to maintain his innocence in the Beerntsen case. In 2002, after serving 18 years (the first six concurrently on the prior endangerment and weapons convictions), the Wisconsin Innocence Project used DNA testing—not available at the time of Avery's original trial—to exonerate him, and to demonstrate that Allen had in fact committed the crime. Allen, who bore a striking physical resemblance to Avery, had committed an assault at the same beach where Beerntsen was attacked in 1983, and was under police surveillance in 1985 due to his history of criminal behavior against women; but he was never a suspect in the Beerntsen case, and was not included in the photo or live lineups presented to Beerntsen.
Avery was released on September 11, 2003. By that time, his wife had divorced him and he was estranged from his family. His wrongful conviction case attracted widespread attention. Rep. Mark Gundrum, Republican chairman of the Wisconsin Assembly Judiciary Committee, impaneled a bipartisan task force to recommend improvements to the state’s criminal justice system aimed at decreasing the likelihood of future wrongful convictions. Recommendations included a revamped eyewitness identification protocol and new guidelines for interrogations of suspects and witnesses and the collection and storage of material evidence. The recommendations were ultimately drafted into legislation that became known as the Avery Bill, which was passed and signed in October 2005, then renamed the Criminal Justice Reform Bill a month later after Avery was charged in the Halbach case.
Avery filed a civil lawsuit against Manitowoc County, its former sheriff, Thomas Kocourek, and its former district attorney, Denis Vogel, seeking to recover $36 million in damages stemming from his wrongful conviction. The suit was settled in February 2006 for $400,000 following his murder indictment.
Photographer Teresa Halbach disappeared on October 31, 2005; her last known appointment was a meeting with Avery, at his home on the grounds of Avery's Auto Salvage, to photograph a minivan that he was offering for sale. Her vehicle was found partially concealed in the salvage yard, and bloodstains recovered from its interior matched Avery's DNA. Investigators later identified charred bone fragments found in a burn pit near Avery's home as Halbach's.
Avery was arrested and charged with Halbach's murder, kidnapping, sexual assault and mutilation of a corpse on November 11, 2005. He had already been charged with a weapons violation as a convicted felon. Avery maintained that the murder charge was a frameup, promulgated to discredit his pending wrongful-conviction civil case. Although a judge assigned the murder investigation to the neighboring Calumet County Sheriff's Department because of Avery's suit against Manitowoc County, Manitowoc sheriff's deputies participated in repeated searches of Avery's trailer, garage, and property, unsupervised by Calumet County officers. A Manitowoc deputy found the key to Halbach's vehicle in Avery's bedroom after repeated searches by other officers. Avery's attorneys said there was a conflict of interest in their participation and suggested evidence tampering.
Avery's attorneys also discovered that an evidence box containing a vial of Avery's blood, collected as part of the 1985 investigation, had been unsealed and a puncture hole was visible in the stopper. They speculated that the blood found in Halbach's car could have been drawn from the stored vial and planted in the vehicle to incriminate Avery; but FBI technicians tested the blood recovered from Halbach's car for ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA), a preservative used in blood vials but not present in the human body, and found none.
As of May 2006, Avery was "the only Innocence Project inmate out of 174 nationwide to be charged with a violent crime."
In March 2006, Avery's nephew, Brendan Dassey, was charged as an accessory in the Halbach case after he confessed under interrogation to helping his uncle kill Halbach and dispose of the body. He later recanted his confession, claiming it had been coerced, and refused to testify to his involvement at Avery's trial. Dassey was convicted of murder, rape, and mutilation of the corpse in a separate trial.
In pre-trial hearings in January 2007, charges of kidnapping and sexual assault were dropped. Avery stood trial in Calumet County in March 2007, with Calumet District Attorney Ken Kratz leading the prosecution, and Manitowoc County Circuit Court Judge Patrick Willis presiding. On March 18, Avery was found guilty of first-degree murder and illegal possession of a firearm, and acquitted on the corpse mutilation charge. Six weeks later he was sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole on the murder conviction, plus five years on the weapons charge, to run concurrently.
After serving five years at the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility in Boscobel, Avery was transferred in 2012 to the Waupun Correctional Institution in Waupun.
In January 2016, after Making a Murderer had been released on Netflix, People magazine reported that one of the Avery trial jurors was the father of a Manitowoc County Sheriff's deputy, and another juror's wife was a clerk with Manitowoc County.
Juror Richard Mahler, who was excused from the trial after the jury had begun deliberations due to a family emergency, later commented that early on, seven of the jurors had voted not guilty. He was mystified that the jury eventually agreed on a guilty verdict. Another juror told the filmmakers of Making a Murderer of feeling intimidated into returning a guilty verdict, fearing for personal safety.
In August 2011, a state appeals court denied Avery's petition for a new trial, and in 2013 the Wisconsin Supreme Court denied a motion to review the ruling. In January 2016, Chicago attorney Kathleen Zellner, in collaboration with the Midwest Innocence Project, filed a new appeal, citing violations of Avery's due process rights, and accusing officials of gathering evidence from properties beyond the scope of their search warrant.
In December 2015, Dassey's defense attorneys filed a writ of habeas corpus in federal district court for release or retrial, citing constitutional rights violations due to ineffective assistance of counsel and the coerced confession. In August 2016, Dassey's conviction was overturned by federal magistrate William E. Duffin, who ruled that his confession was involuntary. Without the use of that confession, it is unlikely that there is sufficient evidence to retry him. Duffin granted a defense petition for Dassey's release on November 14, but an appeals court overturned his ruling on November 17, ordering that Dassey remain incarcerated pending resolution of the state's appeal of the habeas decision.
On December 20, 2015, a petition was created at petitions.whitehouse.gov titled "Investigate and pardon the Averys in Wisconsin and punish the corrupt officials who railroaded these innocent men". In a January 2016 response to the petition, a White House spokesperson said that since Avery and Dassey "are both state prisoners, the President cannot pardon them. A pardon in this case would need to be issued at the state level by the appropriate authorities." A spokesman for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker stated that Walker had no plans to consider pardoning Avery.
A second petition, titled "Initiate a Federal Investigation of the Sheriff's Offices of Manitowoc County and Calumet County, Wisconsin", was submitted to petitions.whitehouse.gov on January 7, 2016. The petition was archived because it did not meet the minimum signature requirements.
On March 26, 2013, the public radio program Radiolab aired an episode titled "Are You Sure?" which featured a 24-minute segment entitled "Reasonable Doubt". It explored the story of Steven Avery from the perspective of Penny Beerntsen, the woman he was wrongfully convicted of sexually assaulting in 1985.
On December 18, 2015, Netflix released Making a Murderer, a ten-episode original documentary series which explores Avery's and Dassey's investigations and trials. The documentary "examines allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct, evidence tampering and witness coercion."
Among the many TV shows that covered the documentary and the issues under discussion, Dr. Phil show had two episodes discussing Avery and the two trials.
The series was widely reviewed and discussed in the media. It generated numerous follow-up interviews and articles with parties shown in the documentary, including family members, and some reporters of the trials.