Correction appended: Jan. 6, 2016
“If they could frame Steven Avery, they could do it to me.” That’s how a juror in the Steven Avery case featured in Netflix’s Making a Murderer recently explained to filmmakers why he voted Avery guilty of murder in 2005, despite believing Avery was innocent, according to the creators of the show.
In the 10-part docuseries, which premiered on Netflix Dec. 18, Avery’s lawyers argued that local police framed him for the crime. Avery’s nephew Brandan Dassey was also convicted for murder based on a confession that Dassey’s lawyers say was coerced from him. Since the show premiered, over 260,000 people have signed a petition asking the president to pardon Avery.
TIME sat down with Making a Murderer creators Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos to talk a variety of topics including that one juror (whose name Ricciardi and Moira declined to give), and why district attorney Ken Kratz should be “embarrassed” that he accused the filmmakers of bias in their depiction of Avery.
TIME: When you began filming, what were your initial impressions of Steven Avery?
Ricciardi: Our very first shooting was the preliminary hearing, which we show some of in episode three. My initial impression was, I thought it was a very charged atmosphere. The courtroom was packed. There was a line outside the courtroom of members of the community coming to find out more about this case. And I think naturally, given the way we’re socialized in this country, here’s a guy being paraded into court in four-inch-wide, black-and-white, horizontal stripes, you think, ‘There’s a reason this person is in custody.’
But then a few weeks later we wrote to Steven while he was in the county jail and introduced ourselves and said, “We’d like to tell your story.” We wanted to see whether he and his family might be open to that. And he was, and he contacted his family. The first time we met with Steven’s mother Dolores and his brother Chuck out at the yard they were very gracious, and we just went from there.
What did you think was your duty as documentarians?
Demos: Here was an opportunity to look with 20-20 hindsight at what had gone wrong in the mid-’80s and then follow a case as it was unfolding in front of our eyes. Challenging ourselves to see—can we recognize if and when the process becomes perverted? And if that happens, why is that happening? It was really to travel through the system with the accused, to see what it’s like to be accused in this country and to offer that experience to viewers.
Showing that perspective of the accused, did you worry about seeming too one-sided to the audience?
Ricciardi: No. I mean, we’re documentarians, and we’re storytellers. We invited as many people as we thought could provide first-hand accounts. We reached out to lawyers on both sides, judges, law enforcement—anybody who would have had first-hand knowledge of the 1985 case all the way through the appeals in the Halbach case and everything in between. We cast a very wide net.
We obviously had no control over who would agree to be in the documentary. When Steven was still just an accused in the pretrial stage in the Halbach case, we reached out to Penny Beernsten, the victim in the 1985 case. She declined out of respect for the Halbachs, she said. We reached out to the Halbachs themselves. They declined. We reached out to Ken Kratz multiple times. Initially, in September of 2006, he did not respond directly to my letters. Instead, two months later, he tried to subpoena our footage. We hired an attorney, filed a motion and won.
It’s pretty interesting that today [Kratz] is trying to reuse the argument that he first raised in 2006, which is a losing argument for him, claiming that we were acting as an investigative arm of the defense. In my opinion, that’s very unfair because we reached out to this person, asked him to participate in the series, he declined and is now disparaging our work as biased and one-sided. We just have no control over that.
That must be very frustrating.
Demos: I would say it should be embarrassing for him, actually, because the subpoena and all of the related documents are part of the case file, and anybody who is so inclined can go and read them. They will see my initial letter to him as an exhibit in the case file. I had to file affidavits. And he made all these accusations about the series, just like he’s doing now. The very same judge who presided over the Halbach matter heard this and ruled in our favor.
What is your response to his accusation that you deliberately left out evidence that damns Steven Avery—like a phone call Avery made to Teresa Halbach, and a discussion he had with an inmate that he wanted to create a torture chamber where he could rape women?
Demos: I would ask Kratz what evidence he would trade that for. We read the transcript of the case multiple times, watched the trial multiple times, watched all the press conferences multiple times. I think we identified the evidence Kratz was hanging his case on: the forensic evidence of Steven’s blood in her car, the things he mentioned in press conferences as proving that Steven Avery had done this, the phone outside of Steven’s bedroom—these are the things we put into the series as representative of all this evidence.
By the nature of spending three and a half hours covering the trial versus five and a half weeks, not every piece of evidence was going to be covered. There was always going to be something he could point to that was not in the series. But nothing I’ve seen him mentioned is nearly as compelling evidence of guilt as the things in the series.
I would also point out that he’s mentioning these things in a vacuum. If you’re so inclined, you can read the court transcripts and see how the defense argued against all those pieces of evidence, what witnesses testified against that evidence. It’s not as black and white as he makes out.
Did you ever consider trying to look into other suspects in the Halbach murder yourselves?
Ricciardi: We were never interested in trying to investigate this case. We were never in a position to do that. We were in a self-financed production. One of us was always going back to our day jobs while the other tried to keep the project moving forward.
But more important, the people who were in the best position to investigate the case was law enforcement. And there were multiple agencies involved at least at the beginning. And I would say that’s true now as well. Law enforcement agencies have the resources and the expertise. It shouldn’t fall on citizens to have to play this role.
And yet a lot of Redditors have posed their own theories. Many believe that one of Steven’s brothers or one of his other nephews may have committed the crime. Did you ever fear you were interviewing the true killer at some point?
Ricciardi: No. What we were exclusively concerned with was procedural in nature. What is the process and is it a just process? We did not have any opinions about who was guilty or any preconceived notions about the process.
That’s the other thing about Ken Kratz’s accusations now: they’re so wild. Moira and I had no stake in the outcome of the trial. We had no interest in whether or not Steven Avery was innocent. We were there simply to document the story and look at the Halbach case not in isolation but in the context of 30 years. What we were really looking at was the American criminal justice system and has there been any meaningful change since 1985 for this person.
I think the saddest aspect of this story for viewers of the series has been Brendan Dassey’s confession. It seems baffling that a jury and multiple judges could watch that tape and not think it was coerced or that something went terribly wrong there. How do you think the jury and judges received that tape?
Demos: I think that’s an example of what is different for the viewer than for the jury. As a viewer, you have a national expert on interrogation techniques and the psychology of confessions about what to look for and how to identify problems, and that helps you look at the footage. An expert like that would have been critical at Brendan’s trial. If his court-appointed attorneys had called an expert like that to help the jury understand because it’s counterintuitive that people falsely confess, and yet we know that happens. Jurors are not always equipped. They press play, and four hours later their eyes have glazed over. It seems as if this person has said they did it, and they need some help understanding what they’re seeing.
Ricciardi: By the time the jury sat for Brendan’s trial, Brendan was a co-defendant accused of crimes for which his co-defendant had already been convicted. And I think that probably factored into the jury’s mind.
Demos: The deliberations for Steven’s trial there was a sense of suspense. You really had no idea what the jury was going to say. I would say when it went to deliberations in Brendan’s trial, there was very little suspense. It was very clear how this was going to come out.
Ricciardi: Some people have noticed the difference between the state’s narrative in Steven’s case and in Brendan’s case. In closing arguments, Ken Kratz at Steven’s trial was arguing that there was no blood or other biological evidence of Teresa Halbach in Steven’s trailer because she wasn’t killed in the trailer. He certainly didn’t argue or try to prove she was sexually assaulted. And then at Brendan’s trial, there was a completely different narrative involving sexual assault. There was one victim but two crimes were argued to two different juries.
A juror in Steven Avery’s case recently reached out to you and said that he or she believed Steven was innocent and that the jurors reached a sort of compromise, acquitting Steven of one crime but finding him guilty of another, in the hopes that an appeals court would set him free. Were you surprised by that information?
Ricciardi: This particular juror told us that they believe law enforcement tried to frame Steven Avery because of the $36 million lawsuit against law enforcement that Steven had pending when he was charged for Teresa Halbach’s murder. And this juror thought that Steven was innocent and should get a new trial.
We naturally asked, if you believed that why did you vote the way you did? And this person told us that it was a decision about self-preservation. The person lived in the county, feared for their safety, and also said, “If they could frame Steven Avery, they could do it to me.”
People have become obsessed with Dean Strang, one of Steven’s lawyers. He’s been compared to Atticus Finch and had love letters written to him. What makes him so beloved?
Demos: If you look at true crime as a genre and why it has a mass appeal, one thing many true crimes stories have in common is a champion for the underdog. Most people feel like the underdog in their lives, and here you have these two lawyers taking up the underdog’s cause and doing it in a very eloquent way.
What’s your next project and will it be true crime?
Riccardi: We’re certainly staying involved in these cases. We will follow developments if they happen. Both Steven and Brendan’s cases are still pending, so if things do develop, we will be there to follow that. And then in our little moment of spare time, we’ve talked about some ideas but nothing we’re ready to talk about yet.
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the creators’ description of the juror. The creators did not state whether the juror was male or female.
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