Convicting Avery: The Bizarre Laws and Broken System behind “Making a Murderer” by Michael D. Cicchini is an unsettling book that gives facts and insights beyond those presented in the documentary and leaves you wondering whether the constitutional right to a fair trial is actually guaranteed where you live.
This gripping and riveting book covers the three court cases featured in the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, but that is its only connection.
In Convicting Avery, Michael B. Cicchini, J.D., brings all his experience and knowledge as a defense attorney to the page in his analysis and overview of the case of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey. The two were convicted of the murder of young photographer Teresa Halbach just two years after Steven Avery was released from prison after serving a sentence for the rape and beating of Penny Beerntsen in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. Avery had been charged in 1985 and spent 18 years in prison before DNA evidence proved he could not have been the perpetrator. He was in the process of seeking millions of dollars in compensation for wrongful imprisonment when Teresa Halbach was murdered.
In the opening chapters, Cicchini makes his position regarding the criminal justice system prevailing in Wisconsin clear, revealing that his fellow criminal defense lawyers often refer to the state as “Hellmouth.” He argues that Wisconsin is operating a criminal justice system that can contravene constitutional rights, laying out his evidence in a clinical, forensic, and highly understandable way. The 15 chapters and postscript cover the law, procedure, rule, and category of evidence that were featured in Avery’s and Dassey’s convictions, as well as erroneous eye-witness identifications, false confessions, and the ethics rules governing prosecutors, which are issues not only limited to Wisconsin but nationwide.
Cicchini argues that Avery and Dassey are—at best—treated unfairly, claiming that the facts suggest that they are the victims of criminal acts by agents of the state, which set them up to be convicted of a crime they did not commit. He presents his case in great detail and allows the reader to assess all the evidence to make their own decision as to whether these two men are victims or criminals who deserve all they get.
It is undisputed that innocent people are convicted of crimes they did not commit. In many cases, these wrongful convictions come to light through DNA exonerations. However, the overwhelming majority of real-life criminal cases do not involve DNA evidence, or even scientific evidence of any kind. It is therefore extremely difficult to estimate the number of wrongful convictions that occur every year in the United States. That is why it is so important that post-conviction courts and appellate courts calmly and rationally analyze all convictions and correct any injustice—or again, at least that’s the idea.
An excellent example of the post-conviction and appeals process gone wrong is Steven Avery’s conviction in the Penny Beerntsen case. The eyewitness identification aspect of that case was the subject of the previous chapter. To briefly recap the trial evidence, Beerntsen testified that she was positive Avery was her attacker. Despite her confidence, however, her initial description of the perpetrator did not match Avery in several respects. The most glaring example was that she told deputies she got a good look at the perpetrator and he had brown eyes. Avery’s booking photo, however, revealed that his eyes were bright blue.
In addition to the discrepancies between Beerntsen’s description of her attacker and Avery himself, Avery denied committing the crime, sixteen alibi witnesses testified that he was nowhere near the crime, and, most compelling of all, the state had no physical evidence linking him to the crime.
It is a fascinating read, as the author skillfully weaves the issues surrounding the cases into a wider debate about the criminal justice system as a whole—not just as it pertains to Wisconsin. The biggest strength is that, rather than just acting as a vehicle for bringing into question the accuracy of the convictions, it demands the reader examine and consider the implications of the material in a wider context than whether you think they are guilty or not. It does not attempt to replicate the television program, and I think it is stronger because of it. There is so much material that it would be easy to get completely lost in the detail, but the author makes sure that the central concept of perceived justice versus truth is never swamped by sensationalist writing.
If you were accused of a crime in in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, would you move for a change of venue to another county, if you could? And knowing that criminal law and procedure is the same throughout the state of Wisconsin, would you want to move your case out-of-state, to another jurisdiction, if you had that option?
Michael D. Cicchini also makes sure that the valid questions and issues that are highlighted in Convicting Avery never violate the identities and right-to-justice that belongs to the victims of the crimes. The point throughout the book is that if the wrong perpetrators are in prison—or if questionable actions have served to put them there—is justice really served? Or have further wrongs been committed due to the necessity for the appearance of justice. A question which remains pertinent both for Wisconsin’s criminal justice system and the United States as a whole.
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Dirk Robertson is a Scots thriller writer, currently in Virginia where he is promoting literacy and art projects for young gang members. When not writing, tweeting, or blogging on the Mystery Writers of America website, he designs and knits clothes and handbags from recycled rubbish.