UW-Milwaukee Journalism Instructor Jessica McBride spent her winter break searching for one thing: evidence.
Her hunt began after she watched the Netflix documentary, “Making a Murderer” in late December. The docuseries follows the twisted life of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who served 18 years in prison for a wrongful conviction of sexual assault. Four short years after being exonerated – and filing a $36 million civil lawsuit against Manitowoc County – Avery was back in prison for the murder of Teresa Halbach.
The filmmakers, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, focused their ten-episode binge-worthy series on the legal defense perspective, ultimately raising viewers’ eyebrows as they turned their concerns to social media. The online buzz came down to one question: is Steven Avery innocent?
“I was emotionally convinced. I thought he didn’t do it, but then I took a step back and thought, what was left out?”
As a former crime reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, McBride is no stranger to legal documents; she immediately read the hundreds of pages of court transcripts and police reports. These files, and her quickly typing fingers, were her hot ticket.
McBride used her column at OnMilwaukee.com to share her findings.
“I emailed Andy [founder of OMC] and said, this is going to explode…I had a gut feeling.”
McBride’s “Making a Murderer” articles on OMC did just that. According to Andy Tarnoff, the back-to-back coverage of “Making a Murderer” led to the site’s highest online engagement since it began in 1998. At the start of the year, OMC had more than 4 million page views and McBride’s articles received more than 100,000 Facebook likes.
— Andy Tarnoff (@AndyTarnoff) January 15, 2016
“At the time, there really weren’t many people writing about it. [Viewers] went online and hunted voraciously for scraps of information about this very addicting, incendiary documentary that made you die to learn more… and then my [column] came up.”
It wasn’t long before other media outlets noticed McBride’s column, too. In the past month, McBride was quoted and interviewed by WISN-TV 12, The Washington Post, St. Louis Radio and Nightline.
“Nightline met me in Manitowoc and stuck a GoPro in my car. For four hours we drove around (Avery’s) salvage yard and through Mishicot talking about the case. I could tell he (Dan Harris) was using me as a local tour guide. Not only to the area, but the case.”
McBride was also offered a spot on Nancy Grace, but was replaced by an exclusive interview with Avery’s ex-fiance, Jodi Stachowski. Nonetheless, McBride’s articles continued to gain national attention as she challenged the docuseries point of view.
“What Netflix did was they seamlessly wove together a narrative using some of the evidence from the case. [The filmmakers] chose a protagonist…they chose a side, and everyone who watches it is likely to think he was framed… I was adding additional detail to the debate based on evidence Netflix left out.”
One piece McBride questioned was Avery’s representation.
“Avery is an example of how the underclass of America can’t get a fair shake in the criminal justice system… I looked up the tax records. (The Avery family) has assets. They have a lot of land. Their salvage yard is $250,000.”
Avery settled for $400,000 in his civil lawsuit against Manitowoc County in 2005; he had this sum going into his second trial.
“He had good lawyers and representation. I’m not sure he’s the best example of what he’s been chosen to represent. I think the narrative better fits Brendan Dassey.”
Brendan Dassey, Avery’s nephew, was convicted as an accomplice to Halbach’s murder. The firestorm debate surrounding Dassey’s trial involves two things: his cognitive ability and an alleged coerced confession. McBride, one step ahead, already looked into these concerns.
“When you read (the transcripts) in full, it’s clear the interrogators are using psychological ploys to get Dassey to talk, and that’s within Wisconsin law. It’s how you do an interrogation. Now, it certainly raises questions with a cognitively challenged teenager who’s unrepresented… And unlike Avery, there was no forensic evidence tying Dassey to the scene of this crime. That concerns me.”
As McBride continued to uncover details to this knotted case, her knowledge began to exceed the space of her column. McBride again turned to OMC for help.
“We’re trying something new here,” McBride said about her e-book “Rush to Judgment: The Unfiltered Story of Steven Avery” published in January with editing and cover design by OMC. “There’s all these swirling opinions, and I wanted to present a fuller picture of the evidence. I think the interest is here and waning.”
Her decision to seek online publication was inspired by the original content’s form.
“[Making a Murderer] is an Internet phenomenon. People who watched are already on the Internet.”
What can the Avery-crazed audience expect to find inside? One element might come as a surprise.
“[Teresa Halbach was] lost in this whole thing. I have a chapter about her, who she is.”
So, after McBride spent her entire winter break frantically hunting for evidence and extensively writing about this case, the big question still remains: is Steven Avery innocent?
“I’ll say this. At the end we don’t get a vote. We’re not the jury. We have a criminal justice process in this country, and it’s a jury system. That being said, as an armchair pundit, I read the whole thing and I see no evidence the jury got it wrong.”