JS Archive

Mar 2006: Unjust jail term didn’t make a monster

Mike Nichols Mike Nichols

A woman from the East Coast called me a couple weeks ago saying she was planning to make a movie about Steven Avery.

I told her, in so many words, that if she was looking for insight into the man accused of the heinous rape, murder and mutilation in October of Teresa Halbach, she was talking to the wrong guy.

I should, in retrospect, have told her something else. She is nuts if she thinks there is a movie in this depraved tale – although I understand why some might think so.

Many of us can’t quite get over the apparent irony of Avery, once best-known as an innocent man wrongly convicted of a 1985 rape by overzealous law enforcement, turning around and becoming, it’s accused, a monster far worse than anything anyone conjured up when he was long ago railroaded.

How can this be?

I have heard speculation that, perhaps, Avery’s long and undeserved 18-year stint behind bars starting in the mid-1980s turned him into the very thing he was, at first, only presumed to be – a compelling story line, to be sure, though an inaccurate one.

Avery has been in trouble since he was 18, at first only in a prosaic way. After pleading guilty to burglarizing a bar, he was sentenced in 1981 to 10 months in jail and given additional time that didn’t need to be served unless he got in trouble again. He did.

According to a criminal complaint filed in late 1982, another man admitted that he, along with Avery, took Avery’s cat “and poured gas and oil on it and threw it in a bonfire and then watched it burn until it died.” Still only 20, Avery pleaded guilty to animal cruelty and was back behind bars until August of 1983.

There are, according to court records, other allegations of assault or abuse from back then that never resulted in charges and, so, are hard to decipher. Easier to decipher is what happened in early 1985.

A woman, his first cousin, testified that one early morning that January, he rammed his car into hers and, when she pulled over, pointed a gun at her head. She said that, starting in July of 1984, Avery had, on and off, been “flashing” her as she drove by.

Accused of endangering safety while “evincing a depraved mind” and being a felon in possession of a firearm, he would eventually get six years – as well as some attention he might otherwise never have drawn. Unfortunately for Avery, the victim was the wife of a sheriff’s deputy. When a brutal sexual assault occurred on a Lake Michigan beach in July of 1985, law enforcement targeted – and ultimately convicted – the man they well knew.

Avery, quite famously, did serve some 18 years after that. Rarely noted is that, during the first six or so years, he was serving concurrent sentences for what he did to his cousin.

The collective allegations of depravity are numbing, even when he was incarcerated. In recent court filings arguing for changes in bail, investigators alleged that early in his incarceration he threatened to kill and mutilate his own wife. They also contend he told another inmate at some point that he had drawn up plans for a “torture chamber” for kidnapping, raping and killing women.

None of that makes right the 12 or so years the man spent behind bars for something he didn’t do.

But it does make implausible the theory that an unjust incarceration somehow made Steven Avery into the monster he is accused of having become in the rape, killing and mutilation of Teresa Halbach.

If Steven Avery did what they say he did, it’s shocking.

But it isn’t ironic. Or, looking back 25 years, completely out of the blue.