I Hope Steven Avery Is Actually “Guilty.”
Because, ultimately, his guilt reveals the force of systemic power that we’d like to overlook.
Let’s be transparent: after watching Making a Murderer and reading numerous articles, I believe Steven is innocent.
So why do I hope he’s actually guilty?
First of all, I hope the murderer of Teresa Halbach isn’t going wholly unnoticed.
Secondly, anti-Avery articles have convinced me of the following two points:
- If he didn’t kill her, the State is guilty.
- If he did kill her, the State is guilty.
Let me explain.
There’s one vital piece of “evidence,” if you could call it that, that points to Avery having killed Halbach — and if Avery is innocent, this piece of evidence will make him look bad, but if he is guilty, (in my opinion) it actually functions to indict the System more than it indicts him.
An article published in The Wrap on January 4, 2016, states this vital piece of evidence:
“While in prison, Avery told another inmate of his intent to build a “torture chamber” so he could rape, torture and kill young women when he was released. He even drew a diagram. Another inmate was told by Avery that the way to get rid of a body is to “burn it”…heat destroys DNA.”
I’m sure that, after reading this, many are thinking, “Oh God! Torture! Murder! He ‘had it in him’!” (whatever that means).
But after studying the psychology of incarceration, my first thought was,
“Of course he would have thoughts like that while imprisoned.”
And further —
“Of course he would have vengeful, perverse thoughts of violently raping and killing a woman while he was wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years for, well, a crime of violent rape with the intent to kill.”
The Lucifer Effect
Dr. Philip Zimbardo earned his Ph.D. in Psychology from Yale in 1959 and went on to become a psychology professor at Yale, NYU, Columbia, and, finally, Stanford in 1968, where he is currently considered an Emeritus Professor.
He’s most well-known, though, for his Stanford Prison Experiment, which he conducted at Stanford University in 1971. If you’re unfamiliar with this experiment, you can find information from the previous links, watch his TED talk, or read his compelling book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.
His book contains his reflections on the Stanford Prison Experiment’s connections with cultural events (such as Abu Ghraib) and further psychological research, and he wrote it over thirty years after he conducted the experiment, giving himself time to recover emotionally, sharpen his reflections, and incorporate further research.
From this project, in which he put perfectly “normal” men into a simulated prison, he discovered some truths about the extent to which situational forces have an effect on one’s behavior — no matter how perfectly normal their natural dispositions were before entering the simulated prison.
“Had I written this book shortly after the end of the Stanford Prison Experiment, I would have been content to detail the ways in which situational forces are more powerful than we think, or that we acknowledge, in shaping our behavior in many contexts. However, I would have missed the big picture, the bigger power for creating evil out of good — that of the System, the complex of powerful forces that create the Situation.”
He continues, writing,
“A large body of evidence in social psychology supports the concept that situational power triumphs over individual power in given contexts.”
This directly opposes the way that many in American society want to view criminality. Referring to the Abu Ghraib atrocities, he is frustrated by
“the military’s unwillingness to accept any of the many mitigating circumstances … that had directly contributed to his abusive behavior. The prosecutor and judge refused to consider any idea that situational forces could influence individual behavior. Theirs was the standard individualism conception that is shared by most people in our culture. It is the idea that the fault was entirely ‘dispositional.”
Without going too deeply into the specific issues of Steven Avery (which perhaps includes the internalization of criminality — specifically, being a “rapist” or “murderer” — due to the court system and prison guards constantly treating him as a criminal), I want to point to what is simultaneously one of the main effects of imprisonment and one of the main causes for converting good people into “evil” people:
“Dehumanization is one of the central processes in the transformation of ordinary, normal people into indifferent or even wanton perpetrators of evil. Dehumanization is like a cortical cataract that clouds one’s thinking and fosters the perception that other people are less than human. It makes some people come to see those others as enemies deserving of torment, torture, and annihilation.”
Later in his book, which I won’t go into, he reveals how dehumanization is absolutely inherent to the (current) system of imprisonment — from being arrested to being controlled every moment of every day to being taunted by prison guards.
In each step of conviction and imprisonment, humans are hopelessly at the mercy of an overwhelmingly large System that can decide — even wrongfully, in Steven’s case — to treat them like animals.
Who Should Be On Trial?
There’s a delicate balance between individual culpability and the System’s culpability that we have yet to reach in the worldview of many in the United States. Without reaching that balance, we will always put the individual on trial. And, as the prosecutors in Avery’s case indicated, any attempt to put the State on trial will be at “your own peril.”
However, Zimbardo suggests that when we recognize the extent to which situational forces serve to control and change individual behavior, we will “put the System on trial,” asking more difficult questions.
Rather than asking, simply, if Steven Avery killed Teresa Halbach, we’ll ask the more problematic question:
- Would Steven Avery have had fantasies about rape and murder if he hadn’t been imprisoned for 18 years — all the while being told that he was a rapist and murderer?
As Avery’s defense attorneys state: you can be sure that you’ll never commit a crime (perhaps), but can you be sure that you’ll never be convicted and imprisoned? And if you are wrongfully imprisoned, can you be sure that the dehumanization you experience throughout that process won’t be enough to fundamentally transform your capacity for evil?
As Zimbardo says,
“Maybe each of us has the capacity to be a saint or a sinner, altruistic or selfish, gentle or cruel, dominant or submissive, perpetrator or victim, prisoner or guard. Maybe it is our social circumstances that determine which of our many mental templates, our potentials, we develop.”
To be transparent (again), I’m sympathetic to Avery. I believe he is innocent. However, the more compelling story to me is not that the system “got it wrong” twice, but that the system, in “getting it wrong” once, actually created a murderer.
I would rather, then, that Avery be guilty. Rather than pointing to the incompetence of the criminal (in)justice system, then, his story would be pointing to the immense power that the System has to dehumanize and fundamentally transform even the most kind human being into a murderer. To literally make a murderer.
If Steven Avery did, indeed, murder Halbach, and if the idea for murder was conceived during his 18-year imprisonment for rape and attempted murder, it seems to be undeniably clear that the System must be held responsible for Teresa Halbach’s death.