As Steven Avery remains behind bars for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach, volunteers at Wisconsin’s Innocence Project continue to fight for prisoners who they think were unfairly convicted.
ABC 12 reports that the Wisconsin Innocence Project takes place in a room at University of Wisconsin’s law school. A number of law students spend their time writing motions, making phone calls, and going over endless boxes of documents associated with caseloads they’ve taken on, in an attempt to help prisoners they think were wrongfully convicted. According to one of the volunteers, student Sofia Ascorbe, taking part in the organization is teaching her a lot about the mistakes made in the criminal justice system.
— WISN 12 News (@WISN12News) February 20, 2016
“It’s definitely opened my eyes to a lot of flaws to the criminal justice system that I didn’t know of before.”
Another student who volunteers to work on the project, law student Dan Housh, stated that the volunteers always go through in-depth research before deciding if they think a person is innocent.
“We research the cases. We read through the trial transcripts, the police reports, and we figure out whether there’s a legitimate claim of innocence there.”
Yet Housh, who’ll only be at the school another year, faces the fact that they may not be able to get anyone out before he leaves.
“I’m only here for a year, and we would never get someone out in a year.”
The Wisconsin Innocence Project, founded in 1989, has received more than 7,000 requests for assistance since its opening. The students’ hard work pays off; out of 379 cases granted to review, 22 prisoners have already been released from prison and 96 of the cases went to court.
— Sofia Ascorbe (@SofiaAscorbe) July 20, 2015
None of the cases are as famous as the Avery case. As the centerpiece for popular Netflix docu-series Making a Murderer, Avery is currently receiving an outpour of support from people across the nation who feel he was framed for Halbach’s murder. On October 31, 2005, Halbach, a freelance photographer, visited Avery’s auto salvage yard to take pictures of a used vehicle he was selling. She was never seen again. Weeks later, the charred remains of her body were found in a fire pit on Avery’s property.
Avery was sentenced to life in prison in 2006 for Halbach’s murder, but his story starts well before then, when he wrote to the Wisconsin Innocence Project in 2000. He’d already served 15 years in prison for rape, a charge that would eventually get dropped, thanks to the hard work and dedication from the project’s volunteers. The Wisconsin Innocence Project co-founder Professor Keith Findley remembers talking to Avery back then, and stated that there wasn’t any signs that he should have been convicted for a violent crime.
“There was never a hint that I saw of him having the capacity for violence. He was a sincere, polite, friendly, happy guy. We started looking into it and worked on the case. We realized there was biological evidence that could be subjected to modern DNA testing techniques.”
In 2003, Avery was released from prison after DNA testing proved that he didn’t commit the rape. Yet three short years later, Avery found himself behind bars again, and for a murder he’s always maintained that the didn’t do. Findley said that Avery’s murder conviction created a negative image on the Wisconsin Innocence Project, so much so that the organization removed all its released prisoners from its website.
“It was all creating a terrible insensitivity to the Halbach family that we thought we need to defuse this emotional reaction going on. So we took down not just his, but all of our clients’ profiles so we wouldn’t single anyone out for any judgment.”
Not long after, two filmmakers asked Findley for an interview, which began the process of creating Making a Murderer. The film is so successful that voices changed from bashing to Avery to signing petitions for his freedom, something Findley found ironic.
“It was kind of ironic. People were furious then that he’d been freed. Now they’re furious he’s been in prison.”
Yet the Wisconsin Innocence Project denied Avery’s request to help him on the murder case, but they declined to say why. Regardless, Findley is happy that the film continues to expose the flaws in the criminal justice system.
“It helps people understand that this is a real problem. It really happens and it affects real people. It’s not just a statistic. Making a Murderer really isn’t about two people. It’s about a much larger system and failures that can happen in that system.”
Steven Avery remains in prison at the Waupun Correctional Institution in Waupun, Wisconsin. His attorney Kathleen Zellner is working on appealing his case.
[Photo by Manitowoc Sheriff’s Office]