For many of the millions who viewed the hit Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” the convictions of Stephen Avery and Brendan Dassey reflect the deficiencies of a corrupt legal system.
But the real facts are more nuanced and complex, according to three reporters who covered the cases in real-time and who discussed their experiences with about 30 Minnesota journalists Monday night.
“Something like these cases stay with you forever,” said Jessica Olstad, a reporter for WLUK-TV in Green Bay from 2005 to 2007, when much of the case was investigated and tried. “I did a lot of crime reporting and it kind of gets to you after a while,” said Olstad, who left her journalism career soon after.
Avery was an early suspect. And he’d already been well known to reporters and law enforcement. He had convicted on a rape charge in 1985, but DNA evidence exonerated him after he served 18 years in prison. Jay Olstad was among the many reporters who flocked to his home to document his return.
“I was on the property when he showed up,” said Olstad, also a reporter for WLUK. (Jay and Jessica Olstad are married, having met at the television station.) Jay Olstad is actually visible in the documentary scene of Avery’s return. “Just look for the sweaty Scandinavian…trying to get his mic close enough. That’s me,” he quipped.
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Tom Kertscher shared his own introduction to the Avery story, which he stumbled upon while talking to an attorney for another legal case.
“I ended the call like any journalist would. I said, ‘What else should we be writing about? What else is out there?’ And he told me about the Stephen Avery case,” Kertscher said.
Kertscher met with Avery several times following his release and toured the now-infamous Avery salvage yard. “[Avery] was happy but nervous, I would say,” recalled Kertscher. He mentioned that Avery’s blood pressure was higher after coming out of prison and that Avery struggled to adjust to life outside.
Just two years after Avery’s release, Teresa Halbach went missing. Her last known location was Avery’s salvage yard and, within hours of her disappearance, Stephen Avery was taken into custody once more.
“I still remember hearing the news,” recalled Jay Olstad. “We knew Teresa was missing. My first thought was, ‘What?’ and my second thought was, ‘This is a hell of a story!’”
All three panelists remembered their coverage of the Teresa Halbach murder with quiet rumination, recalling the bad dreams and emotional struggles the case caused.
“Little things will remind me of [Teresa] or of [Stephen],” said Jessica Olstad. She recalled how a blue Toyota RAV 4, much like the one Teresa was driving on the day of her murder, began parking next to her at work shortly after the release of the documentary. “It’s like, every morning there it is, like ‘Hi Teresa!’” she said.
“I’m still learning,” Jay Olstad said of coping with grisly cases. “The big thing for me is to talk about it. It does impact you.”
“On a personal level it brought up a lot of emotions,” said Kertscher. “Sometimes you just have to get away from these kinds of stories.”
When Netflix released the series, Kertscher’s editor assigned him to watch it. “Watching [the series] again dredged up a lot of that,” added Kertscher who also live tweeted his viewing of the show and did a question-and-answer forum on reddit.
“I’m glad to be away from this [kind of thing] now,” said Kertscher who has moved into a role as political fact checking reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Since the murder cases for Avery and his nephew, Dassey, ended in 2007, the subsequent appeals have not garnered as much public attention.
Upon the release of “Making a Murderer,” however, the public uproar has pulled many of the events of the trial back into the spotlight, and not necessarily accurately.
“If that’s your only exposure to the case I can understand how you could think Stephen Avery was framed, but it’s told from one point of view,” Kertscher said. “Imagine if the filmmakers had embedded themselves with the victim’s family.”
“I think it’s easy to forget that this is three people’s lives we’re talking about and someone is dead,” remarked Jessica Olstad. “This isn’t entertainment.”
“No matter what you think about Stephen Avery or Brendan Dassey, [Making a Murderer] unveiled something we don’t always get to see, which is how a defense team goes at this [case] in real-time,” added Jay Olstad.
Journalists attending the event, sponsored by the Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists, echoed some of this sentiment regarding the dramatic documentary.
“I was just really interested to hear how [the journalists] felt they represented the facts of the case,” said Jim Hammerand, digital editor at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal. “Having reported on crime for all of my professional career . . . I was left uncertain as to whether these guys were really guilty.”
“[The documentarians] only told one side of the story. It was compelling and interesting but I’ve done documentaries and talked to both sides,” said Joan Gilbertson, a senior news producer at WCCO.
Jay Olstad recalled a comment by Stephen Avery’s lawyer, Dean Strang, about his discomfort with so-called “arm-chair sleuths” who have viewed the series and attempt to make sweeping statements about the cases. “The point is the holes in the legal system,” not the apparent guilt or innocence of these men, Olstad said.
“As I was watching…I was going back and comparing how we reported it. It was very important to me at the time that we were even-handed,” Kertscher said.
“I certainly thought, ‘Man, did I miss something?” said Jay Olstad of reanalyzing his reporting. “I think I did a pretty good job. It did force me on a personal level to analyze how I reported back then.”
At the time these cases were unfolding, the public opinion of citizens in Manitowoc and Calumet counties varied from the support for the Averys that exists now.
“I got the sense talking to people that it was mixed, but more people thought he did it,” remembered Jay Olstad. “The Averys were kind of looked down upon.”
The series release has sparked an outpouring of support for Avery and Dassey with a rash of twitter threads andInternet theories from people all over the world. There is talk of a second season appearing on Netflix as the cases move forward. Both Avery and Dassey have lawyers working on appeals.
Madison Rude is studying journalism at the University of Minnesota.