Have 'Making a Murderer' fans gone too far in support of Steven Avery?

The 10-part Netflix series spurred lively debates about the criminal justice system. But local residents say the show has had real-life consequences for Manitowoc, Wis., including bomb threats.

Brendan O'Brien/Reuters/File
A mural of a Budweiser bottle and two Budweiser cans painted on a malt plant overlooks downtown Manitowoc, Wis., January 18. The television documentary ‘Making a Murderer,’ – from the case against Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, who were convicted of killing freelance photographer Teresa Halbach in 2005 – has put Manitowoc on the map.

For many viewers of true crime series like the popular podcast “Serial,” HBO’s “The Jinx,” and Netflix’s “Making a Murderer,” questions about the guilt or innocence of Adnan Syed, Robert Durst, and Steven Avery depicted in each show remain the subject of watercooler discussions and debates about the merits of the criminal justice system.

But each show’s gripping tone and serial format has also prompted more direct action, including calls for a pardon for Steven Avery, the subject of “Making a Murderer.” The campaign took a more bizarre tone on Wednesday evening after a man who called in a bomb threat to a Wisconsin County Sheriff’s Office depicted in the show mentioned “getting justice for Steven.”

A male caller made the threat around 6:40 p.m. Wednesday, saying there were bombs inside the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office building and a car in the parking lot “packed with explosives,” the Manitowoc Police Department said in a statement.

The police department said the caller’s statement about “getting justice” was an apparent reference to Mr. Avery, whose prosecution by the sheriff’s department for a 2005 killing is depicted in the 10-part “Making a Murderer” as overzealous.

The series debates whether Avery, who was previously exonerated by DNA evidence after serving 18 years in jail for a 1985 sexual assault case also handled by the sheriff’s department in Manitowoc County, was treated fairly.

The series suggests that the sheriff’s department may have planted evidence to gain Avery’s conviction in the death of photographer Teresa Haibach a decade ago, a charge the department has denied.

In Manitowoc, located on the shore of Lake Michigan, about 80 miles north of Milwaukee, residents say they have grown weary of the spotlight that continues to shine on the city as a result of “Making a Murderer.”

“It’s like trying to keep religion and politics out of the bar,” Stacey Vanderbloomen, the owner of Van’s Bar and Grill, told Reuters last week, describing the reaction to the show. “I tell them let’s not talk about it anymore,” she added, as two burly men wearing heavy winter coats sat discussing the case.

Crowds have flocked to the city hoping to see the salvage yard where Ms. Halbach’s remains were discovered, and the sheriff’s department says it has received hate mail from viewers.

Shows like “Making a Murderer” – that attempt to introduce new evidence that may prove that someone is falsely accused of a crime have long been popular with viewers.

(“The Jinx,” which concerns decades-old murders allegedly committed by real estate heir Robert Durst, is a rare exception, with evidence in the show being cited as a factor in his arrest and conviction on Tuesday.)

But unlike the fictional template set decades ago by “Perry Mason” – where the titular lawyer faces impossible odds and eventually manages to prove his client is innocent by the end of every show – the modern incarnation can be more divisive.

“It was very clear from the outset that they believed Steve was innocent,” Penny Beerntsen, the woman who originally accused Steven Avery of rape in 1985, told the New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz, describing the efforts of the filmmakers behind “Making a Murderer” to get her to participate in the series. “I didn’t feel they were journalists seeking the truth. I felt like they had a foregone conclusion and were looking for a forum in which to express it.”

Ms. Beertnsen, who has corresponded with Avery since his conviction was reversed and became involved with the Innocence Project, which seeks to free incarcerated people who have been wrongfully convicted, declined to participate in “Making a Murderer.”

For reporters, becoming a real-life Perry Mason – which Ms. Schulz notes was expanded into a real-life series called “Court of Last Resort” – can be thrilling. But the drama behind the series can leave some participants and people depicted in the shows feeling that they have been portrayed inaccurately.

In the case of “Serial,” which won praise for the in-depth approach of its host, former Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Koenig, a witness named Jay Wilds, who testified that he helped Mr. Syed bury the body of his girlfriend, later told the Intercept that he felt the series’ portrayal of him was unfair in a lengthy interview laying out his side of the story. Syed recently requested a new trial.

In Manitowoc, the sheriff’s office said it had received another “very similar” bomb threat 20 minutes later on Wednesday, noting that it hadn’t discovered any suspicious activity in either case.

Some residents have expressed concerns that “Making a Murderer” could also cause damage to the image of Manitowoc. Some businesses told Reuters they were more worried about plans for a local crane and food service equipment maker to separate into two companies.

"That is probably going to affect our community more than this [murder] case is ... but everyone is talking about the Avery case," David Lockmann, owner of the Bike 'n Fit bicycle shop in downtown Manitowoc told Reuters. “It's crazy."

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.