Nearly 270,000 people want convicted killer Steven Avery, who was recently launched into unexpected fame by the Netflix docuseries Making A Murderer, to receive a pardon from President Obama. A petition on Change.org has garnered over 230,000 signatures, while one on the White House's website has collected over 35,000. Both call for Obama to grant a presidential pardon to Avery, who supporters believe was wrongfully convicted with the 2005 murder of photographer Teresa Halbach. Despite the publicity, could Obama actually pardon Avery?
Avery was, in some ways, already granted a pardon of sorts. Convicted of a 1985 sexual assault he did not commit, Avery was released from prison after serving 18 years out of a 32-year sentence when DNA evidence pinned the crime on another man. The case, the docuseries alleges, was grossly mishandled by Manitowoc County officials. A year after he filed a $36 million lawsuit against the county, officials arrested Avery again, this time for murder, as reported by The Post Crescent, Appleton, Wisconsin's local newspaper. The docuseries goes on to allege that this case was likewise filled with corruption, and that Avery was set up under increasing pressure felt by county officials.
These petitions hope to correct that supposed injustice. If it reaches 100,000 signatures, the White House is required to respond to the petition posted on its website. This one in particular also calls for the exoneration of Avery's cousin Brendan Dassey, who was also convicted for Halbach's death. The petition reads:
Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey should be given a full pardon by President Obama for their wrongful conviction in the connection to the murder of Teresa Halbach.
Based on the evidence in the Netflix documentary series "Making a Murderer", the justice system embarrassingly failed both men, completely ruining their entire lives.
There is clear evidence that the Manitowoc County sheriff's department used improper methods to convict both Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey.
This is a black mark on the justice system as a whole, and should be recognized as such, while also giving these men the ability to live as normal a life as possible.
The second major petition, on Change.org, also calls for the accountability of the officials that placed Avery in prison:
Steven Avery should be exonerated at once by pardon, and the Manitowoc County officials complicit in his two false imprisonments should be held accountable to the highest extent of the U.S. criminal and civil justice systems.
But the question remains: could President Obama pardon Avery, even if he wanted to? Obama has never pardoned anyone charged with murder before, with his only two pardons of 2015 being for counterfeit obligations and aiding and abetting bank fraud, according to the United States Department of Justice.
And, as Slate staff writer Leon Neyfakh points out, a presidential pardon could not happen for Avery. Because he is a prisoner of the state, and not a federal prisoner, Obama's hands are tied. Constitutionally, he is only able to pardon those charged with federal crimes.
This key difference may lie in another injustice of the system. Federal prisons typically house political prisoners and white collar criminals. State prisons, on the other hand, normally hold a population reflective more so of a lower income class. According to a report by USA TODAY, the likes of anyone famous, for instance, would rarely be placed in a state prison when charged with a crime.
There is still hope, though, for those wanting to petition for Avery's release. The Change.org petition also addresses Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who, as a state authority, would actually be capable of pardoning Avery from state prison. Though Walker has been notoriously unwilling to pardon crimes during his time as governor — in fact, it's never happened in his five years in office — supporters of Avery and his docuseries ought to give it a try, nevertheless. If there's one thing Making A Murderer has shown, it's that stranger things have happened.