Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Steven Avery case: a veritable case study in misapplied “skepticism”

What more "proof" do you need?!
If you know me or my writing, you know I value critical thinking and skepticism. I realize the value in challenging the default position, in questioning the accepted wisdom, to determine if it’s really the right position, or if we’re just so accustomed to it that familiarity has granted it undeserved legitimacy in our eyes.

Unfortunately, what I too often see conflated with thinking and skepticism is pretty much exactly the opposite. The only thing it has in common is challenging established wisdom – but from there, it veers sharply into paranoid conspiracy territory. There are a lot of political examples I could use, but one that seems to have bridged the left-right divide in our country was the Steven Avery case. *
It’s the kind of story that’s perfectly suited to garner attention from pretty much everyone. A grisly rape and murder. A potentially corrupt town with possibly crooked cops. It’s not particularly surprising that Making a Murderer sparked the kind of interest it did. We as a nation seem inexorably drawn to our high profile murder cases and police corruption accusations; and, seeing as how the defendants were white, justice against police oppression is something even conservatives can get behind. The split between the "guilty" and "not guilty" crowd did not seem to be drawn on ideological grounds**. Which makes sense, due to its wide appeal.

It also makes sense that viewers were immediately, passionately enwrapped in the series. That’s a sign of well done (if highly emotionally manipulative) project, and MaM was certainly well done. As Slate’s Brownen Dickey writes:

From the brooding cello and martial drums of the soundtrack (highly reminiscent of the intro for another show about wrongful conviction, the Sundance Channel’s Rectify) to the long pans of the weed-choked Avery Auto Salvage yard, everything in Making a Murderer spins around an axis of desolation and decay—moral, professional, and physical. If an innocent man can be railroaded by law enforcement twice in one lifetime, I thought, then Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, must be where virtue goes to die. Even the sky that hangs over the place looks like a steel door waiting to slam shut.
And that, of course, is exactly how the directors of Making a Murderer, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, want me to feel. They have constructed every frame to extract from me a sense of moral outrage that is predicated—whether the directors admit it or not—on Avery’s innocence in the murder of 25-year-old Teresa Halbach. …
Several critics have praised Demos and Ricciardi for their neutral, hands-off decision to present the Avery saga without a narrator…
I strongly disagree. Viewers only feel as though they are deciding for themselves. In truth, the conclusions were set up for them long ago. Editing almost 700 hours of material into a taut 10-hour narrative for prime time (roughly 1.4 percent of the footage) necessitates abundant manipulation, but with no narrator at the helm, you are simply less aware of being manipulated. That is its own form of myopia—the tunnel vision of television, as it were—and it brings with it its own set of perils. We are being encouraged to make sweeping decisions based on minimal information—precisely the sort of rush to judgment that Making a Murderer indicts. …

 This was a series designed to evoke anger, sympathy, and outrage, and it left out significant information (like the non-blood DNA from Steven Avery, recovered on Halbach’s vehicle) in the process. The initial reaction is understandable.

What’s less so, though, are the wild, outlandish conspiracy theories that grew from that reaction. As more information, particularly evidence that does not bolster Avery’s claims of innocence, reached the public sphere, “free Avery” activists started to spin some real whoppers. Just a few that I've encountered:

  • As part of the theory that Halbach’s murder was really the work of a serial killer who framed Avery (with or without the assistance of the police, depending on which intrepid investigator you ask), a random elderly man was drawn into the web, on the solid basis that he was seen in the background of a photograph from the courthouse at the time. (That theory crashed and burned when the pictured man was identified as now deceased, and not Ed Edwards). 
  • There was the garage theory – that the “main suspects” (targeted by these self-appointed internet sleuths, rather than real investigators) were tearing down their garage in the middle of winter, because Avery’s new lawyer, Kathleen Zellner, was in town. Which the theorists also had to walk back, admitting that the garage had been started in 2015
  • There’s speculation as to which real person actually wasn’t, as part of the conspiracy. 
  • There was the “the sheriff owns a salvage yard and was in direct competition with Avery so…evidence!” theory (this seems to range from the sheriff wanted Avery out of the picture, because he was competition; to the police found the real location of Halbach’s car, and the crafty sheriff used his tow truck to transport it to Avery’s salvage yard, and hide it).

I’ve seen just about as many variations on theories as you can imagine, pinning the murder on everyone from Avery’s family to his neighbors to the cops themselves, but they share a few things in common:

  • The ardent belief that Avery and Dassey had nothing to do with the murder
  • Complex logistics and multi-layered conspiracies to explain how it actually happened, and how bone fragments, blood and non-blood DNA, Teresa’s camera, phone, jean rivets, and jeep ended up in Avery’s yard, etc.
  •   A total lack of anything resembling evidence

That’s not to say the promoters of these theories don’t think they have evidence. It’s just that what passes for evidence is, in my experience, nothing of the sort; instead, it falls into the typical pattern of conspiracy theories.

You start with a few nuggets of truth, like so:

  • The sheriff owns a salvage yard
  • Avery’s family owns a salvage yard
  • The sheriff must own a tow truck
  • The sheriff was involved in investigating both Avery cases, including one that yielded a false rape conviction

Then you add in your own feelings, like: 
  •  I think that he was unfair to Avery during the murder investigation, and that makes the sheriff a bad person

And based on those facts and feelings, you wildly extrapolate anything you need to explain away actual facts (like, Halbach’s vehicle being found hidden on Avery’s property), like so:

  •   Manitowoc officers found Halbach’s car, where the Real Killer left it (unless they were actually the killers, in an even more nefarious plot to frame Avery, in which case they needed to dispose of the car after committing the crime themselves). 
  • The sheriff ran back to his salvage yard, got his truck, took it to the scene of the abduction, towed it to Avery’s property, hid it on Avery’s property, and went back home. Unnoticed, of course. 
  • Oh, and they quite possibly planted Avery’s DNA – blood and non-blood – on various parts of the vehicle before they dropped it off (otherwise, they did this afterwards, where they were again fortunate not to be spotted…by anyone).

And you don’t just do this once, about a single piece of evidence. You do this again and again, about literally everything that stands between Steven Avery and freedom. 

And should you happen to find a piece of evidence that you don’t have to invent an elaborate, multi-tier conspiracy for (like the allegedly planted key), that in turn becomes evidence on its own. In other words, you can substitute your suspicion for actual proof, and then use that to buoy less plausible assertions.


  • It seems odd that that key was found after the full search.
  • Therefore it had to have been planted.
  • We already "know" that they were planting evidence to frame Avery, so it only makes sense that they planted the bones too. (And the jeep. And jean rivets. And cell phone. And camera. And blood DNA. And non-blood DNA. And…)

 Even when the suspicion is reasonable on its own, accepting suspicion as fact before it’s been validated by evidence is not sound. The key theory is more reasonable (in that, it’s tightly based in the factual circumstances, without introducing a host of variables based entirely on conjecture) suspicion than many of the others:

  • a full search did not reveal the key the first time, but days later this important piece of evidence showed up, so it may have been planted by the officer who found it.

While plausible (an officer could have walked into the Avery residence with a single item to plant, and not been caught), that suspicion is not the only plausible explanation as to why the key wasn’t found the first time (it may have been stuck in the back panel of the nightstand, as the prosecution suggests; or Avery could have relocated it once he thought he was safe to do so [he did argue, after all, that the key was inadmissible, as the search had already been executed, so he seems to have believed the police would not have been back]; etc.). Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest it is any more likely to have been planted than the other options. So not only is this not evidence that the key was planted, it’s certainly not evidence that other pieces of evidence were planted.

And that’s exactly what’s needed for these conspiracy theories to fly: evidence. These are extraordinary claims: multiple officers from multiple departments engaged in multiple crimes; the hiding of the Real Crime Scene; the disinterest in or protection of the Real Killer; the burning of Teresa’s body; the relocation of Teresa’s remains; the attention to detail, to transfer Teresa’s camera, and phone, and jean rivets; the moving of Teresa’s car; the planted bullet fragments; the planting of Avery’s blood and non-blood DNA; the planting of the key; etc., etc. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and instead of extraordinary evidence conspiracy theorists provide vague, ever changing motives, wild finger pointing, and an intense suspicion that Avery was railroaded.

Which brings me back to my original point. It’s not skeptical to literally invent wild, complex solutions to simple problems, and you don’t deserve a pat on the back for challenging the party line with completely a-factual, unsupported nonsense. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Real evidence. Not none.

The Steven Avery case is a great example, as I’ve said, of how easily people can conflate desperately searching for an answer more to their liking, no matter how few facts support it or how unlikely it is, with skepticism. It’s a great example of how actual facts can be spun into completely a-factual narratives. And it’s a great look at how willing we can be to bend and outright disregard reality to hear what we want to hear.

* Disclaimer: I’m not talking about people who have reasonable objections to how the case was handled, or present logically and factually sound evidence that the case was mishandled or that Avery and Dassey are innocent (I’ve yet to see anything convincing on that score, but I’m not assuming that everyone who believes either of those points has to do so so on the basis of the terrible arguments I’ve thus far encountered).

** As far as I could ascertain, at any rate, from reading material on a number of liberal, conservative and neutral sites. If there's any more definitive survey out there, I missed it (if you have a link, I'd be happy to see it & update accordingly).

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