In January 2016 I and many millions of others found themselves hooked on a Netflix TV series called Making a Murderer. At the end, I was left with a big question: did Steven Avery commit the crime?
The morning after having watched the last episode, I had a brainstorm that I thought would be a great way to help solve the crime: crowdfund a prize to advance forensic science to improve the test (for "EDTA") that the show implied might exonorate Avery. But after reaching out to experts in the forensic science field, my simple crusade got much more complicated.
Here's a sample of what I and my friends came up with:
On 18 March 2007, Manitowoc County, Wisconsin resident Steven Avery was found guilty of murdering photographer Teresa Halbach. Halbach had gone missing on 31 October 2005. On 18 December 2015 Netflix released Making a Murderer, which recounts Avery’s story and strongly implies the possibility that he is innocent.
In his 2007 trial, Avery’s lawyers argued that some of the evidence against him might have been planted to enhance the state’s case against him. In particular, there was a blood stain in Halbach’s Toyota RAV4 that may have been planted using a sample of Avery’s blood the sheriff’s office had in their possession.
To preserve a blood sample, the chemical compound Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) is added. This compound does not occur in the human body, so a test confirming its presence on the RAV4 Avery blood stain would provide strong “smoking gun” evidence of police evidence tampering.
Unfortunately, as shown in episode 6 of Making a Murderer, no such EDTA test exists. The FBA was asked to test the sample for EDTA but the detection threshold of their test was arguably too high to make a determination.
Accordingly, I had an idea, in the tradition of the XPRIZE competitions, to organize an inducement prize contest, to encourage the development of a sufficiently accurate EDTA test to re-test the RAV4 blood stain.
What an EDTA test would accomplish
If Avery is innocent: Just as advances in DNA testing technology exonerated Avery of his 1985 wrongful conviction, if he is also innocent of the Halbach murder, advances in EDTA testing technology could exonerate him here.
If Avery is guilty: On the other hand, if he did in fact commit the crime, a high-resolution EDTA test would help to quell doubts about his guilt held by many, since Avery’s version of events would be categorically refuted by the presence of his blood in Halbach’s RAV4.
As an additional benefit, the EDTA test would be added to the forensic arsenal, and could be helpful in many more cases than simply the Avery case.
I and some friends came up with some award criteria:
$50,000 USD (or higher if more funding is obtained), obtained through crowdfunding.
The prize money will be held in a US dollar account which has been placed into a Canadian Specified Trust. The trustee is a Canadian lawyer who is obligated by law to disburse the funds net of fees to the first individual or entity to satisfy the contest criteria.
The trustee is not affiliated with the Avery or Halbach families, current or former Avery defense attorneys, nor with any Wisconsin district attorney offices.
If the trustee determines that a scientist or lab has met the criteria outlined below, the money will be disbursed net of payment processing and crowdfunding fees.
If no scientist or lab has met the criteria by the time Steven Avery dies or if he is fully exonerated by other means, the trustee will dissolve the trust and transfer all prize money to the Innocence Project.
The award money raised by crowdfunding is paid into a Trust established with a Trust Deed specifying that all funds are to be disbursed directly to the contest winner as determined by the criteria outlined above.
It is not possible for the organizers of this crowdfunding to access the funds raised at any time. Your donation is legally assured to go to the specified cause.
At this point I had a crowdfunding pitch drafted and a team of friends ready to help get the word out. There was just one problem: I didn't know how to phrase the problem statement in a way that made scientific sense. Not being a forensic scientist, I reached out to a few people, asking them for help.
I was impressed by the accessibility and candor of these forensic academicians. Here is a response I received from two of the most senior figures in American forensic science:
Here's another exchange I had, with an expert in the field of forensic EDTA testing:
It was at this point that it became apparent that the EDTA test used was perfectly adequate - the issue was with the FBI's experimental protocols. Even so, it seems the defense case in this area was far less convincing that the show made it out to be. I decided that the state of the art in EDTA testing did not need to be advanced, and was already perfectly adequate.
Thanks to all of the academics and lawyers who spoke with me and gave me their valuable time. Thanks as well to the friends who engaged in many great conversations with me about this - it was quite stimulating!