Wisconsin man Steven Avery was tried and convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder of Penny Beerntsen. After serving 18 years in prison, Avery was exonerated after the Wisconsin Innocence Project helped clear his name by matching the DNA at the crime scene to another man. Avery was released in 2003, but in 2005 he found himself at the epicenter of a much more serious crime, the murder of Teresa Halbach, a photographer who disappeared after photographing a vehicle at Avery’s Salvage Yard in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin on Oct. 31, 2005. Halbach was reported missing by her parents on November 3, 2005.
Within days of her disappearance, Halbach’s RAV4 was found on the Avery property. On November 10, 2005, Calumet County Sheriff Jerry Pagel found Halbach’s burned remains on the property, along with her cell phone, license plates and car key were also recovered.
On November 11, 2005, Avery was arrested and charged with Halbach’s murder, kidnapping, sexual assault, and mutilation of a corpse. He had already been charged with a weapons violation as a convicted felon. On November 15, Avery’s blood was found in her vehicle.
Meanwhile, Avery’s 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, who has below average intelligence, was questioned about his involvement and eventually confessed during a highly controversial multiple-day interrogation. Eventually, Dassey was arrested and tried for murder, rape and mutilation of a corpse.
Avery maintained that the murder charge was a frame job to discredit his pending $36 million civil case against Manitowoc County for his wrongful conviction. His attorneys accused Manitowoc officials of evidence tampering because a vial of Avery’s blood, which had been stored in an evidence locker since his 1985 trial, was found with a broken container seal and a puncture hole in the stopper.
Charges of kidnapping and sexual assault were dropped in pre-trial hearings in January 2007. Calumet District Attorney Ken Kratz Avery headed up the trial which took place in Calumet County in March 2007 and was presided over by Manitowoc County Circuit Court Judge Patrick Willis. On March 18, Avery was found guilty of first-degree murder and illegal possession of a firearm, but was acquitted on the charge of mutilation of a corps. A judge sentenced Avery to life in prison without possibility of parole on the murder conviction, plus five years on the weapons charge, to run concurrently.
In a separate trial, Dassey was convicted of murder, rape, and mutilation of the corpse. The judge sentenced Dassey to life in prison with eligibility for parole in 2048.
In August 2011, a state appeals court denied Avery’s petition for a new trial. In 2013, the Wisconsin Supreme Court denied a motion to review the guilty ruling. In December 2015, Avery and Dassey’s story became the subject of a wildly popular Netflix docuseries Making a Murderer.
Following the explosive interest in their case, Chicago attorney Kathleen Zellner, Avery’s new counsel, worked with the Midwest Innocence Project to file a new appeal in January 2016. The appeal cited violations of Avery’s due process rights, and accusing officials of gathering evidence from properties beyond the scope of their search warrant.
On August 26, 2016 filed a motion for post-conviction scientific testing with the clerk of the circuit court, Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. Judge Angela Sutkiewicz signed a stipulation and order for the scientific testing to proceed on November 23, 2016.
On June 7, 2017, Zellner filed a 1,272-page post-conviction motion citing ineffective assistance of counsel, Brady violations, and affidavits by experts allegedly debunking the manner in which Halbach was murdered. The motion also alleged new evidence and ethical violations by Calumet County D.A. Ken Kratz. Zellner requested a new trial, claiming Avery’s conviction was based on planted evidence and false testimony. On October 3, 2017, the motion for a new trial was denied without the court holding an evidentiary hearing. However, on February 26, 2019, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals granted Zellner’s petition requesting that Avery’s case be remanded back to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing on his motion for a new trial. The case will be re-examined by a Wisconsin circuit court.
Zellner told Newsweek, “The appellate court granted our motion to supplement the record with the evidence the bones were destroyed. The case is being remanded back to the circuit court to conduct proceedings, which can include a hearing. The circuit court can grant a new trial, or if not, back to appellate court who can reverse the conviction and/or grant a new trial. Either way, the State opposed this motion and lost. This evidence has the potential to undo the whole case, so it is a big win.”
Zellner, who says her lead suspect is Bobby Dassey–Brendan’s brother and Avery’s nephew–had 14 days to file any “supplemental post-conviction motions.”
Both Avery and Dassey have maintained their innocence throughout.