The jury of six women and six men delivered the ruling after more than 21 hours of deliberations over three days, bringing an end to a court case that had drawn statewide attention.
The verdict was read at about 6 p.m. Sunday, March 18, 2007, in a packed, emotionally charged courtroom in the Calumet County community of Chilton. Avery “gently lowered his chin and shook his head,” according to a story published in The Post-Crescent.
His conviction was the watershed moment in the one of Wisconsin’s most notorious criminal cases. But it didn’t end there. A Netflix documentary that hit the airwaves nearly nine years later has reignited interest and has taken the story worldwide.
“Making a Murderer,” a 10-part docuseries, has been viewed by millions across the world, and has focused considerable attention on Avery’s conviction, as well as that of his nephew, Brendan Dassey.
It caused the trials and verdicts to be heavily scrutinized, with some believing strongly that Avery and Dassey were framed. Others, meanwhile, remain steadfast in their belief that the jury got it right, calling the Netflix series inaccurate and unfair in its portrayal of Avery and Dassey and the investigation into the murder of the 25-year-old Halbach.
“We definitely need to respect the Halbach family,” Manitowoc County Board Chairman Jim Brey said. “He was convicted by a court of law in Calumet County. I think justice was served with the Avery conviction.”
Brey expects Avery’s ongoing post-conviction bid for exoneration to fail.
“Based on everything I’ve seen, he will stay in … prison,” Brey said.
Around Manitowoc, it’s a topic people prefer to avoid despite the attention the Netflix series has drawn.
“I don’t think people talk about it on a daily basis anymore,” Brey said.
Efforts to overturn the conviction and set Avery free from prison, where he is serving a life term, intensified in 2016 as Avery’s new legal team launched a series of scientific tests of evidence from the investigation. Those tests are still being conducted.
The 10-year anniversary of the Avery conviction arrives as several new books on the case have hit book stores, including those authored by former Avery defense attorney Jerry Buting and Avery prosecutor Ken Kratz.
The jury deliberations a decade ago were not without controversy.
Juror Rick Mahler was dismissed during the first day of deliberations, a move that could have affected the outcome.
Mahler later said he felt threatened and upset that three of his fellow jurors immediately declared Avery was guilty at the outset of deliberations. That night, Mahler was removed after Manitowoc County Circuit Judge Patrick Willis and other court officials were notified Mahler had to leave for a family emergency. An alternate was tapped to replace Mahler, and a unanimous verdict of guilty was rendered.
“I think about it every day, and it never goes away,” Mahler told USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin on Friday. “I am hoping that Steven gets a new trial or is exonerated. I am hoping that Kathleen Zellner gets to the bottom of what really happened.
“Some people may say, why didn’t I speak of my belief of his innocence earlier?” Mahler said. “The thing is I had spoken about it shortly after the trial to the filmmakers and to Jerry (Buting) and Dean (Strang). Nothing added up to me, no blood, hair or any other physical evidence that Teresa was ever in Steven’s trailer. My thoughts and feelings are still the same after all these years. I still think the killer is out there. I believe that. I had my suspicions on different things.”
In January 2016, Zellner, one of the country’s most successful wrongful conviction lawyers, took over Avery’s post-conviction appeals.
“I don’t think she would take the case if she didn’t believe in his innocence,” Mahler said. “Her track record of success has been phenomenal.”
”It feels really good,” Mike Halbach, Teresa’s brother, said at the time. He called it a “very happy day.”
“Teresa’s not here, but we know she’s here in spirit and she’s smiling. She showed the jury the way.”
Avery was 44 when convicted. He’s now 54, incarcerated at the Waupun Correctional Institution. He has spent 30 of the last 32 years locked up. He previously lost 18 years due to a wrongful rape conviction.
He and Dassey remain imprisoned as the case continues to draw attention across the country and around the world. Reports this week say Buting and Kratz will be appearing soon on TV’s “Dr. Phil,” marking the first time they’ve shared the same space since the verdict was delivered 10 years ago.
The coming weeks and months are sure to add to the drama.
Zellner hoped to have the independent scientific testing completed in March, but it’s unclear whether that testing remains on schedule. She also is at the mercy of potential backlogs. The testing order includes nine separate items of evidence including several blood stains located within Halbach’s RAV4, a spare ignition key found after several days of searches inside Avery’s bedroom by Manitowoc sheriff’s deputies and a swab from the hood latch of Halbach’s vehicle that later generated a DNA profile for Avery.
In January, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin reported the actions of Kratz while serving as the prosecutor will likely be at the forefront of Zellner’s case.
Avery’s proceedings are assigned to special judge Angela Sutkiewicz of Sheboygan County. A decision on whether to overturn Avery’s conviction is expected sometime this year.