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Marginalised outsiders: why witch trials help us understand Making a Murderer

How are people railroaded through the justice system? Early modern witch trials can provide a clue. Synthesis Films

Marginalised outsiders: why witch trials help us understand Making a Murderer

This article contains spoilers for Making a Murderer.

Making a Murderer (2015-), the latest documentary offering by Netflix, tells the true story of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey.

Imprisoned for eighteen years for a sexual assault he did not commit, and finally released in 2003 after fresh DNA evidence emerged, Steven and his nephew were arrested in 2005 and tried in 2007 for the murder of young photographer Teresa Halbach, who had come to the car yard where Steven and his family lived to photograph a minivan for Auto Trader Magazine.

The metaphor “witch hunt” is the one that springs to mind to describe the persecution of Steven Avery, his nephew and his family. But it is no metaphor. The alleged conspiracy against the Averys has all the hallmarks of the early modern witchcraft persecution.

As the prosecution tendentiously argued, Steven and his nephew were the last to see her alive. The ten-part documentary is driven by the conviction that, angered by the release of Steven and his 2004 civil action against Manitowoc County in Wisconsin, police framed Steven and his nephew and the authorities conspired in their persecution and prosecution.

The White House has already responded to a petition with 180,000 signatures calling on the President to pardon Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey.

Like early modern witches, the Averys are poor white folk, living on the margins, literally and metaphorically, surrounded by acres of trashed cars. They are uneducated and barely literate. They are a family renowned for misdoings and live on the margins of the law.

Steven Avery belongs to the sort of family you don’t want to get on the wrong side of.

The cause of conflict

The key cause of witchcraft accusations in the early modern period was conflict between neighbours. The Averys were in conflict with many of theirs.

In 1982, when he was 20, Steven Avery was charged with pouring petrol on his cat and throwing it into a fire. In 1985, he was charged with running his cousin off the road at gunpoint. She was the wife of a part-time Manitowoc county sheriff.

In that same year, he was also convicted of sexual assault, attempted first degree murder and false imprisonment. It was only after eighteen years in jail that he was exonerated by DNA testing. He sued the county for US$36 million.

So when Teresa Halbach disappeared after having been last seen at the Averys, Steven was the first and only suspect. No surprises there: Steven had form, he had got on the wrong side of the police, and he was suing the county.

More than that, the prosecution and community argued he and his family were evil people. Like early modern witchcraft, it was a family business. No one accused them of being in league with the Devil, but everything but.

Steven maintained his innocence, as witches often did, as the evidence stacked up against him. The documentary presents strong reasons to believe the key evidence – Teresa’s car keys found in Steven’s bedroom and his blood in her Toyota (the vehicle remarkably “discovered” by a civilian searcher among acres of vehicles) – had been planted by police.

At a minimum, serious doubt should have been cast on the prosecution’s case, but the whole community believed Steven was the kind of person who would do this.

Like early modern witch hunters, the cry of “witch!” created one. So too, the evidence followed the conviction of the Avery’s guilt rather than preceded it; it had to!

Confused confessions

Although he initially denied any knowledge of the murder, Steven’s nephew Brendan Dassey, as early modern witches also often did, later “confessed” to the crime.

Clearly below average intelligence, he was “verballed” by the police into a confession that he had been a party with his uncle to raping, stabbing, shooting and finally burning Teresa Halbach.

Like early modern witches, he too was led along the path to his own conviction. He confessed in the belief that, if he agreed to what the authorities were suggesting, he would be forgiven and allowed to go home. There is a sense too that, like the early modern witch, he wanted to please his interrogators by agreeing to their hints of his evil doing.

But also like English witches, in the face of the evidence against him, he seemed to come to believe in his own guilt, at least until he was free of the verbal assaults upon him. Then his recollection of his own innocence resurfaced, only to be followed again by his conviction of his guilt as the contexts changed.

When he finally decided that he was innocent, it was too late. Like the early modern witch, nobody was on Brendan Dassey’s side. Evil was an inherited trait. He was, after all, part of the Avery clan. Even his first defence lawyer verballed him into going for a guilty plea, while his defence lawyer’s investigator persuaded Brendan to draw pictures of the murder of Teresa.

Like English juries in witchcraft trials, the jury came from the local community. Although a majority of the jury initially believed Steven innocent, they were bullied by several others into changing their minds. They were fearful of their own safety within the community to which they had to return.

Readers of transcripts of early modern witchcraft trials never cease to be amazed at evidence accepted as proof of maleficent acts of witchcraft. We cannot believe the failure of the prosecutors, witnesses, juries and judges to see the evidence as doubtful at best, incredible at worst.

But early modern trials, like those of Avery and Dassey in Manitowoc County, proceeded from the presumption of guilt. Little wonder that most cases ended in a conviction. Little wonder that these did too.

You only need to watch this documentary to see how modern justice can still proceed from the presumption of guilt. The wheels of justice, like a juggernaut, drift inexorably towards the conviction of guilt.

Injustice within the justice system in the modern world can be just as possible as in the early modern world. To those familiar with early modern witch hunting, it is no surprise that they were both found guilty.

It is a matter for surprise, even of shock, to viewers of Making a Murderer that witch hunting still thrives in Manitowoc County.