July 9, 1962 |
Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, United States
|Criminal penalty||Life imprisonment without parole|
|Criminal status||Incarcerated at Waupun Correctional Institution|
|Conviction(s)||Sexual assault (exonerated, Sept. 2003)
First degree murder
Steven Avery (born July 9, 1962) is an American man from Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, who served 18 years of a 32-year rape/attempted murder sentence, the first six concurrent with an unrelated, uncontested conviction, before DNA testing exonerated him.
After his release from prison in 2003, Avery filed a civil lawsuit for $36 million in damages against Manitowoc County, its sheriff, and its district attorney. In 2005, while his civil suit was pending, he was arrested for the murder of Wisconsin photographer Teresa Halbach. His 2007 conviction and sentence of life imprisonment without parole were upheld by higher courts. A new series of appeal motions were filed in January 2016.
Avery's wrongful conviction on the rape and assault charges brought renewed attention to the criminal prosecution process, and helped raise awareness to the dangers of false imprisonment. His subsequent murder trial, and its related issues, are the focus of the Netflix original documentary Making a Murderer, released in December 2015, a 10-episode series directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos.
Avery was born in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, to Allan and Dolores Avery. His family operated a salvage yard on the property where they lived. Avery had three siblings: Earl, Chuck, and Barb. He attended school in nearby Mishicot. According to one of his lawyers in 1985, school records showed that his IQ was 70 and that he "barely functioned in school". In 1982, Avery met single mother Lori Mathiesen, and they married on July 24 of that year. They had four children: 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 pleaded guilty to animal cruelty and was back in jail 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 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 by a convicted felon.
Sexual assault conviction
In July 1985, while Avery was awaiting sentencing on the endangerment conviction, 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 out of a photo lineup. Although Avery was 40 miles away in Green Bay—an alibi supported by a time-stamped store receipt and 16 eyewitnesses—he was charged, and ultimately convicted, of rape and attempted murder, and sentenced to 32 years imprisonment. After serving 18 years—the first six concurrently with the prior sentence on the endangerment and weapons conviction—the Wisconsin Innocence Project used DNA testing, not available at the time of Avery's trial, to exonerate Avery as the perpetrator, and to demonstrate that Gregory Allen, a convicted felon serving a 60-year sentence on unrelated charges, had in fact committed the crime. Avery was released on September 11, 2003.
Avery's case attracted widespread attention. Rep. Mark Gundrum, chairman of the Wisconsin Assembly Judiciary Committee, impaneled a bipartisan task force to recommend improvements to the state’s criminal justice system to decrease the likelihood of wrongful convictions. The recommendations were ultimately drafted into legislation that became known as the Avery Bill—renamed the Criminal Justice Reform Bill after Avery was charged in the Halbach case—that was passed and signed in October 2005.
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 eventually settled in 2006 for $400,000 following his 2005 indictment on murder charges.
Photographer Teresa Halbach disappeared on October 31, 2005; her last 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 on November 11. Avery maintained that the murder charge was a frameup, promulgated to discredit his pending wrongful conviction civil case. Although Manitowoc District Attorney Mark Rohrer ceded control of the investigation to neighboring Calumet County, Manitowoc sheriff's deputies participated in searches of Avery's trailer, garage and property, leading to charges of conflict of interest and evidence tampering. In particular, Avery's attorneys discovered that a box containing a vial of Avery's blood, obtained as evidence in the 1985 case, had been unsealed, and a puncture hole was present 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. FBI technicians tested the blood recovered from Halbach's car for EDTA, a preservative used in blood vials but not present in the human body, and found none.
In March 2006, Avery's nephew, Brendan Dassey, was charged as an accessory in the Halbach case after he confessed 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 on the accessory charge in a separate trial; his attorneys have filed a writ of habeas corpus for release or retrial, citing Constitutional rights violations due to ineffective assistance of counsel and the coerced confession.
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, he was transferred in 2012 to the Waupun Correctional Institution in Waupun.
In January 2016, 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 Manitowoc County clerk. Juror Richard Mahler, who was excused from the trial after the jury had begun deliberations due to a family emergency, later commented that in an early vote, seven of the jurors voted not guilty, and he was mystified that the jury eventually agreed on a guilty verdict. Another juror told the filmmakers of Making a Murderer that he or she felt intimidated into returning a guilty verdict, fearing for his or her safety.
In August 2011, a state appeals court denied Avery's petition for a new trial. 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 due process rights.
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 has 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 twenty-four 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 trials. The documentary "examines allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct, evidence tampering and witness coercion", and implies that Avery was framed.
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