In light of this information, he filed a lawsuit against the county for thirty-six million dollars. In , while the defendants in that civil suit were being deposed, Avery was arrested again—this time for the murder of a twenty-five-year-old photographer named Teresa Halbach. Four months later, his sixteen-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, was arrested as well, after he confessed to helping Avery rape and murder Halbach and burn her body. In , after separate trials, both were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Yet members of the department were involved in the case at every critical juncture.
In the course of those interrogations, the boy, who earlier claimed to have no knowledge of Halbach, gradually describes an increasingly lurid torture scene that culminates in her murder by gunshot.
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Dassey first proposes that Avery cut off her hair, and then adds that his uncle punched her. Dassey repeatedly recanted his confession, including in a letter to the judge and on the witness stand. But it was too late. At the time, I was working on a book about being wrong—about how we as a culture think about error, and how we as individuals experience it—and Beerntsen, in identifying Avery as her assailant, had been wrong in an unusually tragic and consequential way.
Beerntsen had also been unusual among crime victims involved in wrongful convictions in that she had instantly accepted the DNA evidence—and, with it, her mistake. Given her history, Beerntsen does not need any convincing that a criminal prosecution can go catastrophically awry. I felt like they had a foregone conclusion and were looking for a forum in which to express it.
Granted, real life is often a muddle, too, especially where crime is involved—but good reporters delineate the facts rather than contribute to the confusion. In the weeks since, people involved in the conviction have been subjected to vicious and in some cases threatening messages from Netflix-watching strangers.
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It also implies that that misconduct was malicious. That could be true; vindictive prosecutions have happened in our justice system before and they will happen again. But the vast majority of misconduct by law enforcement is motivated not by spite but by the belief that the end justifies the means—that it is fine to play fast and loose with the facts if doing so will put a dangerous criminal behind bars.
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The point of being scrupulous about your means is to help insure accurate ends, whether you are trying to convict a man or exonerate him. Ricciardi and Demos instead stack the deck to support their case for Avery, and, as a result, wind up mirroring the entity that they are trying to discredit. If you have lost someone to violent crime, you know that, other than the loss itself, few things are as painful and galling as the daily media coverage, and the license it gives to strangers to weigh in on what happened.
That experience is difficult enough when the coverage is local, and unimaginable when a major media production turns your story into a national pastime. Like the Lee family, the Halbachs and Penny Beerntsen declined to participate in a journalistic investigation into their personal tragedies.
But no one in such a situation has any real way to opt out. Beerntsen, for her part, was dismayed to discover that the filmmakers had obtained a photograph of her battered face from the attack and used it without her knowledge. This is not to suggest that reporting on violence is always morally abhorrent. Crimes themselves vary widely, as does crime coverage, and it is reasonable to hold that at some point the demands of private grief are outweighed by the public good.
Instead, both creators and viewers tacitly dismiss the pain caused by such shows as collateral damage, unfortunate but unavoidable. For one thing, it was addressed to the wrong person: Avery was convicted of state crimes, not federal ones, and the President does not have the power to pardon him.
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For another, it was the wrong demand. Hence the ad-hominem attacks the show has inspired. Among other things, simply being black can suffice. Seventy-two per cent of wrongful convictions involve a mistaken eyewitness. Twenty-seven per cent involve false confessions.
Nearly half involve scientific fraud or junk science. Brian Hickey PhillyVoice Staff. Healthy Eating.
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