Killing Another Mockingbird: The Startling Similarities between the Steven Avery Case and Harper Lee

The minds of the world have been drawn to the case of Steven Avery by the 10-part Netflix Series Making A Murderer. For 10 hours at the very least, people have been considering the evidence, and lack thereof, that saw Steven Avery of Manitowoc County back in police custody for the murder of Teresa Halbach a mere 2 years after his exoneration for a rape that he did not commit and for which he served 18 years in prison.

For many people, this has been a series that has stayed on the mind and has seen an online outcry for the retrial of both Avery and Brendan Dassey, Steven’s nephew who was convicted for his supposed involvement in Halbach’s murder after Avery’s conviction in 2007.

As the documentary introduced me to the case and the justice system that is questioned and often held accountable for the gross misconduct the defence elucidate, I was led, as I’m sure many were, to ask myself if I could say beyond all reasonable doubt that Steven Avery is innocent. The leaning of the documentary, after all, is to expose flaws in the system that imprisoned Avery and to allow the defence camera time, so was I just watching some well-made, compelling propaganda? Of course, no one but Teresa, her killer and Avery can say with certainty who is and is not to blame for her tragic murder, but the series led me to question if people are able to see guilt or innocence amongst a lack of evidence. As Steven’s defence attorney Dean Strang effectively asks the camera in the later stages of the 2007 case, do we view justice as convicting someone we cannot be sure of in order to ensure the safety of the community, or is justice the protection of someone’s liberty in the face of a lack of evidence to convict?

Dean Strang, Steven’s defence attorney on the Halbach case that worked alongside Jerome Buting, has already been likened to the infamous Atticus Finch from the novel To Kill A Mockingbird, largely due to his emotive closing statement at the 2007 trial and his tireless work on the case, evidenced throughout the documentary. Undoubtedly his appearance has brought to mind the fictional lawyer as played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film adaptation also and it was amusing to see that a Google search of the name ‘Dean Strang’ immediately brought up an image of Strang surrounded by superimposed hearts created by one of a number of his fans following the documentary’s success.

But Strang’s resemblance to Atticus Finch is by no means where the similarities to To Kill A Mockingbird end. In the documentary we see the Avery family; a family set apart from the rest of the community as ‘different’. They are known for petty crime and their geographical distance from the other residents of Manitowoc County, their car salvage yard separating off their small family community from the rest of the town. They are not black as the Robinson family in Harper Lee’s novel, but they are just as different to their community; distant, undereducated, a family the community do not know and therefore do not trust. In To Kill A Mockingbird the family of Tom Robinson, who later goes to trial for the rape of Mayella Ewell, a member of a nortorious, all-American white family in the heart of the community, are infrequently visited and set apart from the white community. The fact that Mayella spoke to Tom is a story in itself, and as Atticus uncovers, her growing friendship and attraction to him is a deep shame that could shatter the Ewell name and so an alternative story must be created for the courts as to their physical encounter. Here, the Averys stand as the Robinsons and the wider community, including the police department, as the Ewells. If the defence is to be believed, the police could not handle Avery disproving their efficiency and Avery needed to be framed for a crime he did not commit, just as Robinson is, in order to reinstate its power and authority.

There is also the matter of wealth and education. Tom Robinson in To Kill A Mockingbird has a manual job and lives a life of limited means in a small house out of the centre of the town of Maycomb County (we could go into the similarity in town names here, if we wanted). Steven Avery and his family, too, get their income from manual work at their auto salvage business and evidently are not well off, living in trailers on the outskirts of the yard on which they work. It is clear from Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey’s appearances in the documentary that their education is very limited; they have a thick accent that sets them apart from the weaker accents of those living in the heart of the town and they speak in broken slang that often is so unintelligible that the documentary provides subtitles. In the novel, Tom Robinson too speaks in broken English and is unable to summon the words required to fight the justice system that has him on trial. Both the fictional Robinson and Avery appear to be at a disadvantage from the offset; they lack the means to properly defend themselves and although arguably both are able to access good representation for their trials, they are already assumed guilty and ganged up against for being different and therefore untrustworthy.

Even the images provided in both the trial of Tom Robinson and the real-life trial of Steven Avery are hauntingly similar. While Mayella says that she visited Tom Robinson to bust up a chifforobe for her, Steven Avery is described as busting up scrap from his yard to put in the fire; the fire that Dassey’s confession describes as the burn pit for the body of Teresa Halbach.

It is very disturbing to unveil so many similarities in the miscarriages of justice and misunderstanding of people that was present in a novel set in 1933, a novel that reflected a true story from Harper Lee’s own childhood growing up in 1930s America. This is 2016. Every day the case rolls on, and new stories are available from a variety of online sources. Whatever you believe, however you view the case of Steven Avery, it is all too clear to see from Making A Murderer that some men are born more equal than others.