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How Forensic Science Might Free Steven Avery

Steven Avery gained worldwide popularity after a Netflix true crime documentary called Making a Murderer debuted in December of 2015. The Steven Avery story’s incredible because following his release after 18 years in prison for an assault he didn’t commit, he was convicted of a crime for which he again proclaimed his innocence: the murder of Theresa Halbach.

The second season of the documentary, released in October of 2018, asks more of the same questions:

Is Avery innocent? Could the US justice system have wronged the same individual twice? Could Avery really be spending time behind bars for a second crime he didn’t commit? And, like his first wrongful conviction, will DNA or other forensic evidence help clear his name for a second time?

How DNA Evidence Exonerated Steven Avery After 18 Years Behind Bars

On July 29, 1985, a woman named Penny Beerntsen was sexually assaulted and nearly killed while jogging on a beach near Green River, Wisconsin. After Ms. Beernsten gave a description of her attacker to police, they immediately directed the blame toward a man named Steven Avery. Ms. Beernsten was given the opportunity to identify her attacker in a line-up and pointed directly to Steven Avery. He was eventually found guilty of attempted murder, first degree rape, and false imprisonment.

After Avery’s multiple failed appeals and his continued insistence that he was innocent, the Wisconsin Innocence Project successfully petitioned (despite the state’s objection) to use more powerful DNA technology. On September 10, 2003, lab results proved Avery was telling the truth: he had nothing to do with the crime. Via a search of the state and national DNA databases, Gregory Allen was identified as the true perpetrator of the crime.

On September 11, 2003, Avery was freed. He had served 18 of his 32-year sentence in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Steven Avery – Arrested for the Murder of Theresa Halbach

On October 31, 2005, Theresa Halbach had an appointment with Steven Avery at his auto salvage yard to photograph a car he was trying to sell. Avery called Halbach’s employer to make the appointment and requested her specifically. The Avery’s Auto Salvage appointment was Halbach’s last appointment of the day and according to court records, Halbach was last seen alive on the Avery’s property.

Various pieces of evidence linked Steven Avery to the murder of Theresa Halbach:

  • Halbach’s vehicle was found on the Avery property – with bloodstains in the interior that matched Steven Avery’s DNA.
  • The key to Halbach’s car was found in Steven Avery’s trailer.
  • Charred bone fragments found in a burn pit near Avery’s home were identified as Halbach’s.
  • Brendan Dassey, Avery’s nephew, confessed to detectives that he helped his uncle rape and kill Halbach at the Avery family’s auto salvage.

Avery was arrested and charged with possessing firearms after two guns were found in his home on November 9, 2005. A few days later authorities charged Avery with first-degree murder and mutilating a corpse. After a long and grueling trial, Avery was found guilty of first-degree murder and of being in possession of a firearm on March 18, 2007. Avery was sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Timeline of Steven Avery’s Arrests and Convictions

Making a Murderer: Steven Avery Timeline

How Forensic Science May Free Steven Avery, Twice

Forensic scientists evaluate physical evidence left at crime scenes to help identify suspects and determine what happened before, during, and after a crime was committed. Forensic scientists play an important role in the criminal justice system, as they are able to prove or disprove theories of crimes by using scientific methods.

Forensic science was imperative in proving Steven Avery’s innocence in the attack on Penny Beernsten. It is also an important part of the defense Kathleen Zellner, Avery’s new attorney, is mounting for Avery in her attempts to free him for the murder of Theresa Halbach. Kathleen Zellner specializes in overturning wrongful convictions for men and women serving time in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. To-date, she has secured the exoneration of 19 men and women.

There are several forensic science specialties that have played a role in Steven Avery’s case. Below, we discuss the most popular of these specialties, how they could impact Avery’s case and how you can find a career in that area of forensic science. If any of these careers interest you, head on over to our bachelor’s in forensic science page to learn more!

Forensic Serology: The Impact of Blood Splatter on Avery’s Case

In season one of Making a Murderer, viewers saw Avery’s defense team argue that blood evidence found in Theresa Halbach’s car had been planted by investigators. However, they did not have an expert witness to confirm this theory in front of the jury – and if they had, maybe Avery wouldn’t have been found guilty.

So what kind of expert witness should they have called? A blood splatter expert, of course!

Blood splatter analysis, which is technically known as forensic serology, involves looking for, identifying, and studying bodily fluids found at the scene of a crime – including blood, urine, saliva, and semen. Forensic serologists work to identify possible suspects, determine cause of death and help detectives unravel the sequence of events surrounding a crime.

In the second season of the documentary, Ms. Zellner picked up where the original defense team left off: with the blood splatter in and on Ms. Halbach’s car.

This time, Ms. Zellner calls in an expert: forensic serologist Stuart James. According to Dr. James, Theresa Hallbach was not shot in the head as the prosecution claimed; rather, she was beaten in the head. Zellner and James conclude that based on this theory, the blood splatter on Theresa Halbach’s car was planted. It doesn’t match the pattern you’d expect to see based on their new theory of the crime.

Later in season 2, Zellner comes to the conclusion that the blood on Halbach’s car was not planted by police as Avery’s original defense team theorized. Rather, whoever killed Ms. Halbach likely planted Avery’s blood on Halbach’s car by taking Avery’s blood from a sink after he had cut his thumb and left behind blood.

Forensic Anthropology

Forensic anthropology is the study of human remains to help solve criminal cases. A forensic anthropologist can assist in the identification of deceased individuals whose remains are decomposed, burned, mutilated or otherwise unrecognizable, as might happen in a plane crash.

Avery’s original defense team, featured in season one of the show, attempted to provide proof that Halbach’s bones had been moved to the burn pit on the Avery’s property from another location. The prosecution’s expert witness, a forensic anthropologist, testified that all or most of Halbach’s bones were found in the burn site on the Avery’s property. Defense expert witnesses, on the other hand, said major bones (the pelvis, for example) were missing from the Avery property. Not only that, they identified two other places where bones were found; a barrel on the Janda property and in a quarry located just outside of the Avery property.

The bones are explored further in season two of Making a Murderer. According to defense experts hired by Kathleen Zellner, bones found in the quarry had the same cut marks as the bones found in the burn sites, which link Ms. Halbach’s bones to all three sites. Kathleen Zellner and a forensic fire expert she hired believe the bones could not have been originally burned at Avery’s, further cementing their theory that the bones were planted on his property.

Do you have a strong stomach and want to work with the bodies of the dead to help solve who killed them? Learn more about how to become a forensic anthropologist!

Forensic Science Technician

A forensic science technician analyzes and documents evidence from crime scenes. This evidence may include fingerprints, blood, hair, and bullets.

In season two of the documentary, we see Avery’s defense team identify and test three separate examples of the forensic evidence used against Avery. After various reenactment tests, Avery’s defense team believes these pieces of forensic evidence to be false.

The new defense team alleges that:

  • Halbach’s hood latch would have had to be opened 90 times for Avery to leave behind the quantity of DNA extracted the swab by the Wisconsin Crime Lab.
  • In a test the defense performed, they asked Avery to hold a pair of keys identical to the ones found in his bedroom belonging to Theresa Halbach. He deposited 10 times less DNA on the test key than in the amount of DNA found on the key that police recovered from Avery’s bedroom. This suggests that the DNA was planted.
  • The bullet, which allegedly went through Halbach’s skull, lacks any bone particles which would be present if the bullet had entered and exited her skull (as the state claimed at trial).

Does helping perform and document tests such as these, which help determine someone’s guilt or interest, sound interesting? Consider a career as a forensic science technician!

Forensic Psychology

Forensic psychologists study the mindset and behaviors of people who are suspected to have committed crimes. By learning more about a crime suspect’s behavior patterns and motivations, they can help determine whether it is probable that the suspect was capable of committing the crime or not – and if they did, whether or not they should be held accountable for their actions.

Forensic psychology is important in the Steven Avery case. For one, both men have IQ’s that are low enough to interfere with their day to day living. This is more important in the case of Dassey, as his IQ falls under the diagnosis for a mental disability. Because of that and his age, forensic psychologists argue Dassey should never have been interrogated alone in the first place, so his entire confession should have been deemed inadmissible.

Avery has a low IQ as well, and in addition, he may also be suffering from cognitive dissonance from the 18 years he spent in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. In the second season of the show viewers watch Avery undergo “brain mapping,” which are scans performed on his brain to help determine whether or not he is lying. According to the experts in the show, Avery is telling the truth about his innocence.

If studying criminal brains through interviews and scientific tests sounds interesting to you, you might love a career in forensic psychology. As a forensic psychologist you could also spend time providing counseling or therapy to criminals or their victims, providing witness testimony in courts, and helping determine whether new police are fit to serve or not.

Will Steven Avery be Released?

Steven Avery said it best himself, “The truth always comes out.” Only time will tell whether new evidence will prove Avery’s innocence. This case revealed that there’s always room for improvement in our justice system. Unfortunately, the checks and balances of our system may have failed both Steven Avery and Brenden Dassey.

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