Most of us know at least one version of the Steven Avery story already. Showcased in the massively successful Netflix show Making a Murderer, many of us have already learnt a lot about Steven’s wrongful conviction for the rape of Penny Beerntsen in 1985, his exoneration in 2003, and his subsequent ‘involvement’ in the murder of Auto Trader photographer Teresa Halbach in 2005. Many of us sat and binge-watched show after show and seethed at the apparent injustice of Steven’s first conviction, only to reel with shock and disgust as the documentary painted a picture of how he may have also been set up for a second time. Steven is now serving a life sentence for this second crime, and while Making a Murderer never proved his innocence, it did a thorough job of showing how it should have been almost impossible for the jury to convict him beyond a reasonable doubt.
Michael Griesbach, author of The Innocent Killer, agrees wholeheartedly with the documentary when it comes to the first case. In fact, for the first 150 pages or so, this work of non-fiction is a powerfully disturbing rebuttal of everything that occurred during the arrest, the trial, and the conviction. Griesbach takes aim at the police, the prosecution, and the entire justice system. And this has to be seen as a pretty brave move when you consider that he works as a prosecuting attorney and was once the Assistant District Attorney for the Manitowoc department that so badly wronged Steven Avery. And for those who enjoyed the show (if enjoyed is the right word), there is plenty more to stoke the fire in Griesbach’s account of the Penny Beerntsen case. Making a Murderer has often been accused of leaving out evidence that counted against Avery, but in the wrongful conviction of 1985 they actually left out more of the stuff that should have seen him set free. It is absolutely shocking to hear just how heavily Avery was railroaded. And Griesbach does an incredible job of demonstrating how badly the defendant’s right to the presumption of innocence was ignored. He also makes sure to hammer home the point that, because the wrong man was sent to jail, a dangerous sexual predator was able to carry on committing brutal crimes for another ten years.
But when it comes to the Teresa Halbach case, Griesbach has a different opinion. And this is where his account becomes a little uncomfortable. It’s not necessarily a problem that he believes Avery is guilty of this crime, because even the accused’s most vehement supporters would admit that they have their doubts at times. But what does bring a little shiver to the spine is the way in which Griesbach commits many of the misdeeds he accuses the police and the prosecutors of in the Penny Beerntsen case. He fails to consider any other suspects, he decides that Avery is guilty at a very early stage, and he neglects to even mention much of the strongest evidence for the defence that we all saw when watching the documentary. It is almost as if, as Assistant District Attorney at the time of this second crime, he is unwilling to accept any suggestion of mistakes that may have happened under his watchful eye. The book goes from a savage and brave investigation of corrupt American justice to a passive acceptance of the police and prosecution’s word.
Any Cop?: It would be misleading to say that this wasn’t a riveting read. Outrage will keep you turning the pages for the first two thirds, and intrigue will sustain you through the rest. My advice would be to not read this book, or watch the documentary, in isolation. The book does the most thorough job on the first case and the show presents a much more in-depth account of the second. It’s doubtful that those who believe Avery is innocent will be swayed by Griesbach’s account, but they will find a work of non-fiction that demonstrates just how desperately the justice system needs a rethink. It’s just a shame that the author changes his tack towards the end. Even if he’d still reached a conclusion that the accused was guilty of the crime, he could have done much more to show how flawed this second investigation was.