Dan O'Donnell's new podcast on iHeartRadio, Rebutting a Murderer, isn't just some random person's take on the popular Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer. O'Donnell, a Milwaukee radio reporter, covered the case and appears throughout the series, at various news conferences and pacing around courthouse hallways.
The popular Netflix series, which is being prepped for new episodes, is both captivating and polarizing. O'Donnell, who was reluctant to watch at first, told Adweek that "half of Wisconsin" binge-watched the show within two days of its debut. After being urged by friends and colleagues to watch, he did. And he didn't agree with everything he saw. So that's how the 10-episode Rebutting a Murderer came to be.
"It's the most visually stunning, captivating documentary series I've ever seen. It's like, Fargo meets the Sopranos. It was beautiful," said O'Donnell, who now works for WISN radio. "But as I was getting into it, I was like 'wait a second. That's not how I remember it.'"
Adweek: How did you come to cover the Steven Avery case?
Dan O'Donnell: I covered the Steven Avery case for the radio station I used to work for, news radio 620 WTMJ in Milwaukee. I had just graduated from law school in June 2006 and I loved radio and broadcasting. I decided, instead of practicing law, I'm going to go into broadcasting full-time. At that time the Avery case was very big. We knew this was going to trial, and a few months before, my boss said, "Hey Dan, you have a legal background. What would you say to sort of putting your life on hold for a good two months, going up to Calumet County and covering this for us?" At the time I was 24, 25-years-old and I said "Yeah, I don't have any kids. Let's do it." I covered it every day. I would do hourly reports. I would do live interviews on all of our shows, I was filing occasional reports for our network affiliate ABC News radio, and this was before Twitter. Instead of sending out tweets with all the updates, I was doing a minute-by-minute almost blog. It was sort of like a timeline of events. I covered it as a news reporter from pretty much start to finish.
Were you familiar with the case before covering it?
The Steven Avery case was huge. I think the film does a good job of portraying, when Avery was freed in 2003, [that] he was like a hero in Wisconsin. And then in 2005, when it became clear that he was the primary suspect in this 25-year-old woman's disappearance, it was like a punch to the gut.
Filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi had been documenting the case since shortly after Avery's arrest in 2005. Did they ask you to participate in the documentary?
I recall we all had to sign releases. The filmmakers gave us all releases. Of course I signed it without even thinking about it. I kind of joked to them that I'm a radio guy so sometimes I won't be shaven and I certainly won't be wearing a suit. I'm the one that announces, I think in episode eight, that a verdict is in. They captured me pacing around on the phone giving a live report.
What issues do you have with the finished product?
I understand that the filmmakers acknowledge they were there with a narrative in mind. However, they selectively omitted what I believe to be key evidence. They selectively glossed over key evidence that tends to show Avery's guilt. Moreover, what they did with respect to their frame-up allegations/conspiracy theory was not to provide any actual affirmative evidence to support their conclusion. Rather, based on supposed motive and opportunity, they made insinuations and vague allegations of wrongdoing. The filmmakers are instead relying on us to supply the conclusion that they've already drawn.
So do you think Steven Avery is guilty?
Yes. There is literally no question in my mind. If you're really interested in Making a Murderer, watch the confession [Brendan] Dassey makes on March 1 with the two interrogators. He goes into extraordinary detail. I mean, painstaking detail. The series makes it seem like this guy's really dumb, right? He wouldn't have been able to make [those details] up. One of my favorite parts of the trial was when he's asked where he would have gotten these details. He says, "I don't know, I might have read it in Kiss the Girls." We've already established this kid reads at like a fourth-grade level; a James Patterson 464-page dense novel is not something he's going to be able to read and retain. My 8-year-old reads at a fourth grade level. There is no way he's going to be able to follow the intricacies of Kiss the Girls. If you go back and really watch the confession, there was no coercion. I have no doubt, reasonable or otherwise, that those two committed this heinous crime.
If Brendan isn't capable of retaining Kiss the Girls and reads at such a low level, why do you think it's possible he was able to participate in such a horrible crime?
Here's the thing—and this was never mentioned in the series—at one point in Dassey's phone call to his mother from jail, he says that Avery inappropriately touched both him and a female cousin. Avery had already been sent away to prison for life so there is no real reason to investigate this, but it seems as though it's possible at least that Avery was molesting Dassey. Dassey wasn't developmentally disabled; he was just cognitively disabled. I think that Avery possibly molesting him is a big part of why he would do this in front of his uncle. The uncle would be egging him on like, "Come on Brendan, do it kid, do it." It's another piece of the puzzle, the molester/victim relationship. [It's] really sick, it's almost like master/servant. I do think Brendan is a tragic figure in this. I really do. But I think he was victimized by his uncle, not the justice system.
Would you say the filmmakers are irresponsible?
It's not irresponsible. Well, that's a tough question. They're not responsible, obviously, for all of the threats and what their viewers have done since watching this film. They couldn't have possibly known that people would react so crazily, [that they'd be] sending threatening notes to Brendan Dassey's attorney Len Kachinsky, who is vilified throughout the film. He had people telling him they hope he dies of cancer. He's suffering from, I believe it's leukemia right now. The filmmakers don't bare any responsibility for that, but they make these allegations, and they make it very clear what they're alleging.
How did the podcast come together?
I remember thinking back to when I covered the trial and I was like, "Wait a second, that's not how I remember it." It was Steven Avery's story. It got me thinking that this was just one side of the story. This was one perspective. The Avery family's perspective. I think people owe it to themselves to get the other side of the story. To get another view on this. To take into account the evidence that was either omitted or glossed over. I decided to tell that other side of the story. Let's let people watch the series, listen to my podcast and decide for themselves.