Kill the Mockingbirds: Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey

When I watched the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, I was surprised at how familiar it sounded. How could it be? I’d never heard of the Averys or the case. But it felt like watching an old, familiar story play out, hoping it would end differently, and knowing it wouldn’t.

It took a few days to realize why it was familiar: it was because of To Kill a Mockingbird. Believe it or not, there are a lot of parallels.

In the first episode, Steven is released from prison. When he arrives at the family home, we see that, like the Ewells of Maycomb, the Averys have created an island of their own in Manitowoc county.

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From the poverty, the numerous children, the alcoholism, to the way they are regarded by their neighbors, the two families have a lot in common.

There are also differences: the senior Averys appear to be kind people who loved their children, and their home had a legitimate reason to be surrounded by junk: they ran a salvage yard. But poverty and ignorance make subtle differences hard to detect.

 

Maycomb and Manitowoc counties were filled with small towns where people intermarried so often that nearly everyone was related by blood or marriage. Everyone knows everything about each other. Nothing remained a secret, no outlandish rumor failed to spread. Steven was no stranger to the police; he had been arrested multiple times. And the police – like other humans – started to dislike him after repeated negative exposure.

So when Penny Beerntsen was attacked and sexually assaulted, it wasn’t that hard to believe that the deputy who responded to the call actually told the victim: “That sounds like Steven Avery.” Of course Steven was an obvious suspect. He was a local thug and a small-time criminal. And there were red flags: exposing himself, pulling a gun on someone, cruelty to animals.

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The evidence, though, pointed away from Steven yet police refused to consider any other suspect. The police probably knew Steven wasn’t Mrs. Beernsten’s assailant. But they felt justified sending this dirty, disheveled man to prison because Avery was a bad guy.

Steven’s situation began to resemble that of Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch’s client, who was also wrongfully accused and convicted of a rape. Personally, Robinson was the opposite of Avery: he had never been in trouble, he was an all-around good guy. The circumstances were different. But both men were powerless, and faced with a system determined to crush them: their guilty verdicts were assured before their cases were argued.

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Avery served nearly two decades. It was his mother’s persistence that led to his release. Dolores Avery worked steadily to publicize the case, hoping to raise the interest of someone who could help. It was thanks to her efforts that someone looked in the old case files and found the DNA that led to Steven’s exoneration.

After 18 years, Avery was out, and things looked good. He cut off the Santa Claus beard, moved to the family compound, and worked at the salvage yard. He had a girlfriend. He wanted things to be right.

Then Teresa Halbach was murdered and her car and charred remains were found on Steven’s property.

Police again zeroed in on Steven, since he was the last person known to have seen her. And again, the evidence pointed elsewhere, causing the police – the same three officers that put Avery away in 1985, in fact – to stoop to framing him.

It seems if there was one thing that was not going to happen again, it was an exoneration. Enter Steven’s nephew Brendan.

Steven Avery listens as he is convicted of murder.

Steven Avery listens as he is convicted of murder.

Brendan Dassey was 16 when Teresa was murdered. He was a slow kid, in special ed classes and read at a fourth grade level. He was shy, awkward, and so easily led, it’s maddening.

The detectives thought he would be an excellent “eyewitness” to Steven’s crimes. Brendan was afraid: he wanted to please the officers to put an end to the interviews. The detectives were delighted to find someone so easily manipulated.

They suggested a story to him. It is obvious Brendan doesn’t know what happened. He doesn’t understand the consequences so he told the detectives what he thought they wanted to hear.

Brendan Dassey

Brendan Dassey

When Brendan told his mom he admitted to a rape and murder he wasn’t guilty of, she demanded he tell the truth. Brendan did so, only to be intimidated into inventing another story. The detectives didn’t believe it – Brendan mostly repeated what they told him to say –  but they were satisfied.

Brendan’s statements were so obviously coerced they couldn’t be used in Steven’s trial. The collusion between the police, the prosecutor, the judge, and the horrible court-appointed defense attorney, Len Kachinsky, merely resulted in a life sentence for Brendan.

Many people do good things. Some people do bad things. But few of us have the heart to really sin. When Atticus Finch said it was a sin to kill a mockingbird, he was talking about harming the innocent. When the police framed Steven Avery, it was a bad thing, but you could see how they got there. In their hearts, they thought they knew the real Steven and he was bad.

But then they crossed the line. To bring him down, the detectives, attorneys, and judge – men who knew what they were doing – targeted a shy, defenseless boy, without the mental faculties to understand what was happening, and ruined his life. That was a sin.

Brendan Dassey

Note: The only person connected to Steven’s 1985 wrongful conviction who apologized to him is Penny Beerntsen, the victim of the attack, who mistakenly chose him from a line-up. Steven forgave her on the spot.

 

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