Phil Houston is CEO of QVerity, a training and consulting company specializing in detecting deception by employing a model he developed while at the Central Intelligence Agency. He used this model to analyze Steven Avery in the popular documentary Making a Murderer. His colleague Don Tennant contributed to this report.
It’s extraordinarily difficult to watch the immensely popular Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer without feeling an overwhelming bias in favor of Steven Avery, the program’s hapless protagonist. After all, Avery had served 18 years in prison for a rape he didn’t commit, only to find himself back in prison a few years later, sentenced to life without the possibility of parole for the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach. Whether or not the filmmakers intentionally portrayed Avery as a victim, attempting to see him in any other light was an elusive quest.
Compounding the empathy that audiences around the world have felt toward Avery is the fact that his conviction in the horrific death of the young photographer came largely at the hands of the seemingly seedy Manitowoc County, Wisc., Sheriff’s Department—the same law enforcement agency that had, perhaps knowingly, bungled the rape investigation that stole nearly two decades of Avery’s life from him. But what if we somehow had the ability to watch Making a Murder without the encumbrance of the natural bias and empathy we feel as decent human beings? What would we conclude about Avery’s culpability then?
That ability exists. And with it, we can affirm that we have every reason to believe that the jury was correct in finding Steven Avery guilty of the murder of Teresa Halbach.
What enabled us to confidently arrive at this conclusion is a deception detection methodology that has proven to be remarkably effective in an expansive range of applications. Employing this systematic, stimulus-response methodology, developed and refined by our team at the Central Intelligence Agency, we conducted a behavioral analysis of Avery’s interviews and commentary as presented in Making a Murderer. It is the high volume of deceptive verbal and nonverbal behaviors exhibited by Avery, and the significance of the various contexts in which these behaviors were exhibited, that led us to our conclusion.
That our confidence is so high in this case might seem surprising, given that our conclusion is based solely on the footage presented in the documentary—we have had no access to the unedited source material. But the fact is, this is the real world in which we live—one in which we are often presented with snapshots and soundbites, disjointed glimpses and piecemeal narratives. That was the nature of our work in applying our methodology in the intelligence community, just as it is today in applying it to detect deception in business, in politics, and in everyday life.
We should point out that in watching Making a Murderer, we detected deceptive behavior on the part of law enforcement officials, as well. Yet it is precisely because the methodology enables us to take bias out of the equation that we were able to recognize that behavior, while at the same time arriving at a conclusion regarding Avery that flies in the face of popular sentiment. There either are deceptive behaviors exhibited in response to a question, or there aren’t. That’s one of the beauties of the methodology. Bias never enters the picture.
To illustrate the methodology, let’s look at several of the encounters with Avery, beginning in Episode 2, with a clip we were shown from an interview conducted by a local TV news reporter who spoke with him after Halbach went missing, and before the charred bone fragments that constituted her remains were found in a burn pit on the Avery property. The reporter asked Avery about Halbach, who had been on the Avery property several times in the past year to photograph vehicles for Auto Trader magazine. The reporter asked, “Did she mention any other appointments that day, or anything like that?” This was Avery’s response: “I don’t think so. Because most of the time, she takes a picture, then she writes down the serial number, then she comes and collects the money, and that’s about it.”
Now, consider exactly what Avery said. Asked whether Halbach had mentioned any other appointments that day, Avery detailed the unrelated sequence of events that takes place whenever Halbach comes to his property. He appeared to be eager to convince the reporter that there was nothing out of the ordinary this time, yet in doing so he qualified his response with the phrases, “most of the time,” and “that’s about it.” The psychology that’s driving the use of those qualifiers is a desire to carve out and withhold information that he had a reason for not wanting to disclose. After all, “most of the time” doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s what Halbach did this time. When you consider that, along with the “that’s about it” comment, Avery appeared to be sending the eerie message, “Something different happened this time, but I’m not telling you what it is.”
This sort of messaging from Avery was, in fact, all too frequent. In the same interview, Avery went on to tell the reporter, “Tonight the cops come and asked me if I remember anything. I told them no.” Seems innocuous enough, right? But if you focus on the literalness of what he was saying, you recognize that he actually may have been revealing something that could be extremely informative. The police asked him if he remembered anything, clearly referring to information that might help them locate Halbach. In saying, “I told them no,” Avery was not saying that he didn’t have any pertinent information. He was simply stating that that’s what he told the police. In that process, Avery was sending what we call an unintended message, revealing a significant clue without even realizing it. We think of this phenomenon as “truth in the lie”—a deceptive person will often make a truthful statement that, when analyzed for its literalness, indicates that the person may be perpetuating a lie.
Let’s look at another example. Later in Episode 2, in a subsequent interview with a local TV reporter around the same time, Avery was asked, “Who do you think did something with her?” Avery responded by launching into aggression behavior—a behavior that deceptive people often exhibit when they feel cornered by the facts of the situation they find themselves in. Typically, they attack the questioner to compel him or her to back off, or a third party to shift the spotlight to someone or something else. In this case, Avery went on the attack against law enforcement.
“I’ve got no idea,” he said. “If the county did something, or whatever, and trying to plant evidence on me or something, I don’t know. I wouldn’t put nothing past the county.”
It’s important to note here that despite his comment, “I’ve got no idea,” Avery in fact failed to deny any specific act of wrongdoing. And apparently as a means of avoiding having to answer any more questions about what happened to Halbach, Avery shifted the spotlight from himself by attacking law enforcement.
Beyond this attack behavior, which is significant in its own right, did you spot the unintended message? Remember, the interview was conducted before Halbach’s remains were found on his property, and yet Avery was already raising the specter of evidence being planted there. The unintended message appears to be that Avery was well aware that there was incriminating evidence to be found, and that he’d better get a head start on preparing his defense.
And then there’s the footage from an interrogation of Avery, also shown in Episode 2, conducted by investigators Mark Wiegert and Tom Fassbender on Nov. 9, 2005, the day after Halbach’s remains were found in the burn pit on Avery’s property. While this interrogation was conducted in a highly confrontational manner that runs counter to the non-coercive approach we have found to be much more effective, there were nuggets from it that warrant consideration.
One of those nuggets came in the form of what we call a non-specific denial. Instead of denying the specific act that he knew he committed, Avery twice said, “I didn’t do nothing.” What’s important to understand is that that’s not the same as saying, “I didn’t commit the murder.” The psychology here is simply that it’s much easier for a deceptive person to speak nonspecifically when he knows what he’s saying is a lie.
And it gets worse. At one point Wiegert said to Avery, “I don’t think you meant to kill her,” and asked, “Did you plan it?” In response, Avery simply said, “No.” Now, if Avery hadn’t done it, his response would almost certainly have been that he didn’t kill her—the one fact that would be most important to him to articulate, and that would get the point across that it couldn’t have been planned, because it didn’t happen. This appears to constitute another unintended message: “I killed her, but it wasn’t premeditated.”
Yet another unintended message came at the end of the portion of the interrogation that we were shown, when an exasperated Avery said to Wiegert, “I did 18 years! Do you think I want to do any more?” Avery appeared to be conveying his rationale for refusing to admit to the murder.
Jumping to Episode 4, let’s examine the segment from a March 31, 2006, phone interview with Avery, who was in jail at the time, conducted by a reporter from the Associated Press. The reporter started the interview by thanking Avery for calling, and saying, “First of all, let’s start out by telling me how you’re doing.” In response, Avery chuckled and said, “I could do better if I was out of here.” Now, consider what’s happening here. If you were in jail a second time for something you didn’t do, facing the prospect of spending the rest of your life in prison, would you see anything funny about it? So why was Avery laughing?
The laughter constitutes a deceptive behavior we designate as an inappropriate level of concern—an aggression behavior that belittles the reporter for asking the question, and suggests that Avery was attempting to gain the upper hand in the exchange. The reporter then asked Avery for his thoughts on the recent confession of his nephew, Brendan Dassey, who was convicted of participating in the sexual assault and murder of Halbach. Avery responded that he knew the confession was coerced. How did he know? “Because there ain’t no evidence to back it up,” he said.
Think about that. Avery knew the confession was coerced, not because what Dassey confessed to never happened, but because there was no evidence to back it up. The unintended message appeared to be clear: What Dassey had confessed to was indeed true, but the police had no corroborating evidence to be able to prove it in court
That brings us to the final episode. In his dramatic closing soliloquy orated by phone from prison, Avery provided what might have been the most glaring unintended message of all.
“They think I’ll stop working on it, and it’ll be forgotten. That’s what they think,” he said, as the camera panned metaphorically across the heaps of rusting, skeletal cars that had been left in the Avery salvage yard to decay. “But I want the truth. I want my life. But they keep on taking it.” Then, in what may have been the ultimate statement of “truth in the lie,” punctuated with an inappropriate chuckle, Avery said, “So I’m going to keep on working, even if it’s wrong.” With that statement, Avery underscored what his behavior suggested throughout the series: that he likely lacked the benefit of having right—and, by extension, the truth—on his side.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Steven Avery had been convicted of sexual assault and murder. He was only convicted on the murder-related charge.
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