Making a Murderer: Pamela Sturm, 'The Chosen One'
Pamela Sturm with her daughter Nikole, found Teresa Halbach’s vehicle on Steven Avery’s property. Sturm takes to the stand and gives her account of what happened. An initial once-over of Sturm’s nonverbal behavioural cues doesn’t bring to light any red flags that point towards deception, unlike many of the witnesses from the prosecution. However, since Sturm is often portrayed by the public as a liar, I decided to look closer and scrutinise her body language and expression to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. I have indeed found a couple of red flags.
The interview takes place over two video clips. Here's the first:
“Ms Sturm were you familiar with the Avery salvage property?”
Sturm shows a microexpression of anger at 0:34, this is right on cue with Kratz starting his question, on the word “Ms”. It’s a tough one to see, even to a trained eye. We see it mostly in her right eye (left of screen) which narrows slightly, her eyebrows pull together very slightly. Is this aimed at the situation of her as a witness, or is it aimed at Kratz?
As Sturm expresses anger she inhales deeply. Her head is fairly low into her shoulders. We call this ‘turtling’, it’s like hiding in the open, we do this when we want to avoid attention. Mid question, just after the word ‘familiar’, she switches from her turtling position to one of confidence, as if to say to herself, “I’ve got this”. Her neck and head stretch upwards and her chin juts out; we feel an air of superiority (see screenshot below), and in those few seconds her first impression is formed; anger, hiding, superiority. The impression is a negative one, we don’t like it! From that moment onwards confirmation bias kicks in and we start to inadvertently filter what we see and hear, altering our interpretation and perceptions of Sturm. I’m not immune to this, I find it hard to like her. So I go out of my way to remove the emotion and scrutinise the cues, looking for both positive and negative cues, to objectively understand what’s going on.
There are several cues throughout Sturm’s interview which suggest Sturm’s feelings towards Avery are negative. We start seeing them from the outset. As Kratz says, “Avery”, notice Sturm’s glare (slow the video down to see it more clearly). Then on the word “property”, we see a microexpression of contempt (hatred/disdain). We see this on her left (our right) side of her mouth, a momentary tension in her lips on one side of the mouth. It makes sense that her feelings towards Avery would be negative, given that she found Teresa’s car there. However, if we consider whether this dislike of Avery was in existence from the outset (years, days, hours before), then it would make sense as to why she would want to believe Avery was involved, and therefore volunteer to search Avery’s property.
“No, I'm not at… I wasn't at all"
Sturm shakes her head congruently as she speaks, then at the end of her statement she does a very slight one sided shoulder shrug, showing she isn't confident in her words. If you’re already familiar with my posts, or with body language, then you’ll know this can be a red flag when it comes to deception. However, before we jump to conclusions, let me emphasise it’s meaning; not confident in our words. And let’s look at the context; she corrects her own use of tense, from “I’m not” to “I wasn’t”. If she needs to correct herself then she obviously isn’t confident in her words. This is very common to see. Oftentimes we do it with something as simple as not being able to find the right words to describe what we’re trying to say. There would be a lie there had she said, “I’m not familiar…”, as she does, now, have some familiarity with the property. Though we can’t rule out a bigger lie (e.g. what if she knew more about the property from the outset), we can say with certainty that the simple correction of her words is enough to warrant a one-sided shoulder shrug.
“All I knew it was a 40 acre plot, salvage yard for… vehicles.”
Sturm nods in congruence with her words, then hesitates with a prolonged “for” then a relatively long pause, before she says “vehicles”. During this hesitation, she shakes her head, flashes a microexpression of contempt and her hands enter the screen with open palms. The raised open palms in combination with the shoulder shrug nonverbally says, "I can't do this". I suspect this is in reference to trying to articulate the right word (vehicles). Most likely the contempt would be towards herself in her attempt to find the right word.
“Ms Sturm, prior to your arrival at that location, had you had any contact or direction from any law enforcement persons?”
What’s interesting here is Kratz's body language and expression. He shakes his head and narrows his eyes at Sturm as he asks the question. Is he nonverbally manipulating her answer? I doubt Sturm would pick this up consciously (did you notice it?), however her subconscious would have picked it up, and therefore it could have swayed her response.
“No sir we didn’t.”
Full (two-sided) shoulder shrug, showing that she is confident in what she’s saying. You have to be quick to spot this due to the camera work. We see the latter part of the gesture; we see both shoulders drop. So she is confident in her answer! I think it’s important at this point to remember that the question was specifically relating to “direction from law enforcement persons”. Had she instead been asked “Ms Sturm, prior to your arrival at that location, had you had any contact or direction from anybody?”, I wonder if her response would have differed. Perhaps this is why Kratz felt the need to reinforce what he wanted to hear by nonverbally leading her response.
“Why don’t you show us then, where did you and Nikole start looking?”
We can’t see Sturm at this point, so let’s jump to the next question.
“Let me stop you right there Pam. Can you tell the jury what you were looking for?”
“We were looking for any trace of Teresa. Be it the car, er, or herself”
Sturm hesitates before saying “herself”. As she says it, she eyeblocks (eyelids), showing dislike. Then she looks to the left to gauge someone’s reaction. Who is she looking at? Is it the jury, her daughter Nikole, or someone else? The other interesting cue here is in the thumbs. The more elevated our thumbs are the more positive the cue. Thumbs pointing directly upwards is high confidence (in self or topic), disappearing thumbs shows a lack of commitment or insecurity. Just after saying, “herself” and gauging the mystery person's reaction, Sturm’s thumb suddenly disappears into her hand. This is a negative gesture and either signals discomfort at the thought of finding Teresa herself (her body) or a signal that they were not looking for the body, only for the car, suggesting they may have been expecting to find it.
As Kratz starts to ask his next question, again Sturm turtles and inhales deeply, showing discomfort. Is this relating to her own answer, or in anticipation of the next question? Either way, this behaviour doesn’t seem to suggest complete honesty. If she was confident in her evidence and open to sharing it in it’s entirety, I doubt she would be displaying this behaviour.
“And after looking at those rows of cars, where did you then look?”
“I continued up here and I saw these vehicles up here, and this is like a ridge up here. So up on the top there’s a little car path, and you can see there’s some vehicles here. And I thought I have to search up there. I have to search each and every one.”
We don’t see Sturm as she’s talking, so can’t audit her body language. Though the delivery of her speech sounds fluid and authentic.
"And did you do that?"
The camera clips back to Sturm and we see a one sided shoulder shrug. Since this means lack of confidence in words and it is seen at the time of the words it relates to, in this case Kratz’s words, we can assume that she didn’t “do that”. She didn’t “search every single one”.
Sturm avoids giving a direct response and continues with:
“So I went up there and I went through, like, three cars.”
Sturm’s thumbs, once again disappear as she says “three cars”. This is the third nonverbal cue that suggests something is amiss with Sturm’s account of the number of cars she searched. The first being the shoulder shrug and the second being the avoidance of a direct answer.
Sturm then looks away from the exhibit/image, as she starts to recall the chain of events:
“And I came upon this car (eyelid flutter/inner turmoil) that had all these branches on the top of it and leaning against it and there was an old hood of a car, leaned up against it. And it was kind of blueish-green (exhale), and (exhale) I thought this is really strange (congruent head nod). This is really strange (congruent head nod, self soothing/insecurity forehead touch). And it looked like a little SUV like I was looking for, a RAV 4 Toyota SUV (congruent head nod, self soothing/insecurity forehead touch). And I went around to the back of the vehicle, and again there were branches leaning up against it, and I noticed that it said RAV 4. Well my heart started going (taps heart), you know, oh my goodness maybe this is it (deep inhale)”
Sturm uses her hands to illustrate her words. Her gestures, expressions and vocal delivery all seem aligned with her words. She also displays several nonverbal cues that illustrate the negative emotions felt in recounting this part of the event (eyelid flutter, self soothing, vocal delivery).
Continues into next video clip. Here's the video:
Sturm pauses with her hand on her heart as if she’s lost in her own thoughts, then looks to Kratz as he says:
“Let me stop you right there Pam…”
It’s around this point where Sturm’s behaviour seems odd. This does not confirm deception, though it could add to people’s dislike.
Sturm, composes herself by putting on a momentary false smile (see screenshot below) as she apologises, then drops her head down and pulls down the outer corner of her eye (either a blocking behaviour, to catch a run of tears or an attempt to suggest tears are present). This looks like an emotional display, genuine or fake, so I’m searching for a genuine facial expression of sadness (only one in ten people can fake genuine sadness) to back this up. At this point, it’s difficult to see. It’s typically evident in the shape of the eyebrows and a downward turned mouth. Sturm’s eyebrows are not clearly visible and her hand conceals her mouth.
Sturm goes on to describe that her worry at that point was for the safety of her and her daughter, with no mention or concern for Teresa. This seems to me very odd. Even if she wasn’t close to Teresa, surely there should still be some concern and sadness expressed. Is this self centred approach, another factor that leads to dislike?
“When you saw this Ms Sturm, what did you do?”
“I became very, very worried for our safety (congruent definitive hand gestures, fear expression, eyelid flutter/inner struggle), because 90% this is probably Teresa’s car (congruent open palm gesture) and we’re in danger. So I called Nikole’s name (nose touch/stress indicator, fear expression). I think I maybe even screamed. I shouldn’t have, but I did (tension in lips/fear). And then went running to the area where she was. I said Nikole, Nikole, you have to come and see this car (congruent open palm gestures) It must be her car”
Once again, Sturm’s behaviour is in alignment with her words, she shows both fear and stress, through voluntary and involuntary gestures. It's worth mentioning here that we don't always cry to express sadness. Crying is a response to an overwhelming emotion. Usually, but not always sadness. Is that why I couldn't confirm genuine sadness? Was it because the emotion expressed was fear?
“Did you attempt to verify the identification of this car?”
“And how was that done?”
“My daughter Nikole, brought her cell phone along (congruent head nodding) and we. I should back up. Ryan gave us a direct line to Sheriff Pagel, in case we found something (congruent head nods)."
The camera clips to Strang, Buting and Avery. While Strang holds onto the table, compressing his lips, Buting’s expression says it all. He takes a second look in disbelief at what he just heard, a nonverbal “I’m sorry, what?!”.
“So I called Sheriff Pagel…”
Clearly shocked by what he heard, Buting looks down. And with lips still tightly compressed, Strang turns towards Buting to gauge his reaction.
These emotional reactions from Buting and Strang were, I’m sure, very similar to yours on hearing this revelation. Though I’m guessing, if you were in the safety of your own home, yours would have been a little more pronounced!
This revelation and the manner in which it was delivered, suggests Sturm is being open and honest in her account. If she believed there was anything iffy about the chain of events, she probably wouldn’t have volunteered this information, and certainly not in such a blasé manner.
Most significant here is Sturm’s statement; the fact that Ryan Hillegas gave them a direct line to Pagel in case they found something. This is very telling, was he expecting them to find something, or did he give this direct line to everybody involved in the search?
“…and I said I think I found the vehicle”
“How long from when you entered that property did it take you to find Teresa’s vehicle?”
Sturm wrings her hands as Kratz starts his question. This is a pacifying gesture, a stress indicator.
“I believe we entered at 10 to 10 and by 10:20 - 10:25 we had found the vehicle (congruent head nod)”
Here I can finally confirm an expression of sadness.
“Ms Sturm, do you know how many vehicles are on this property?”
“I didn’t at the time (congruent head shake), I had no idea”
Sturm looks at the image of the salvage yard as she speaks. She is upset, we can clearly hear the emotion through her voice and breath.
“Looking at it now, do you think you got lucky?”
“Yeah, well not lucky (head nod), God showed us the way, I do believe that (congruent head nod)”
Sturm nods affirmatively, finishing her statement with a lift of the head, another show of superiority.
“And do you think that looking at this exhibit now, that you and your daughter Nikki could have searched that entire salvage yard?”
Sturm looks at the image, smiles and shakes her head in response to Kratz words. At the same time she places her index finger on her nose. It’s important to stress at this point that contrary to common belief, nose touching is NOT an indicator of deception. Usually a nose touch is a stress indicator. This gesture is a little different in that it’s prolonged, so has a different meaning, usually indicating pensiveness; engaged in, or reflecting deep or serious thought. The positioning is also a little unusual in that it’s on the tip of her nose, a pointing gesture. In context, it’s likely that this is indicating self reflection in terms of what has been said, let’s pull a few points together:
- Sturm believes God showed them the way
- Sturm exhibited superiority
- Kratz suggests that searching the entire salvage yard would be a difficult task
- Sturm nonverbally says she couldn’t do it
- Sturm smiles
- Sturm reflects, deep or serious thoughts relating to herself
This suggests that Sturm takes delight in believing that she is the chosen one, and with God’s help achieved something close to impossible.
“We would have tried, we would have come back the next day if we had to”
Sturm, overwhelmed with emotion, wipes the tears from the outer corner of her eye and again we see an expression of sadness.
I deliberately ploughed through Sturm’s nonverbal behaviour with a fine toothed comb, for a couple of reasons:
- I wanted to make sure my own confirmation bias wasn’t kicking in. We all have confirmation bias, positive or negative, with everyone we encounter. I find it hard to like Sturm and although I know this is due to her nonverbal behaviour, I’m still not immune to it. Therefore, I had to ensure I wasn’t filtering or interpreting my observations with bias. Let me add here that many people were against Steven Avery from the outset. Their preconceived ideas, or the impression they had of him, were enough to believe he would be guilty, and enough to assist in getting him convicted. This is wrong, but it’s also reality.
- I know that many people believe Sturm is lying and I also know how dangerous that is in terms of false accusations. Again, I can refer to Steven Avery’s situation. It was important that I cover all bases to find evidence, for or against, this perception.
It appears that Sturm is generally being truthful, however there are a couple of red flags that point towards deception. Remember we can't say for sure that Sturm is lying, only Sturm herself knows this. Further questioning or evidence based around these points could reveal more.
- Disappearing thumb, showing insecurity/lack of confidence when she said “We were looking for any trace of Teresa. Be it the car, er, or herself”. Suggesting Sturm and her daughter were only looking for the car. Were they expecting to find it?
- Anticipation of questions. Was there a question that Sturm was hoping wouldn't come up?
- A cluster of negative gestures (shoulder shrug, avoiding question and disappearing thumb) based around how many cars/which cars were checked.
Perhaps the most revealing part of the interview was Sturm’s statement about receiving a direct line to Sheriff Pagel from Ryan Hillegas, should they happen to find something. I feel that we should look to Hillegas for further explanation of this. Interestingly, Hillegas flashes a microexpression of contempt, during his interview, as he explains that Sturm and her daughter turned up for the search late! Is this a hint towards the truth? Was he expecting them earlier to fulfil this role? Had something been set up? Had he (or someone else) in some way suggested to Sturm that the vehicle could be found there? If that was the case, Sturm may not have been consciously aware of that. After all, she truely believes that God led her there. Could Sturm be just another pawn in the charade?
I'll leave you with one last thought to consider:
The importance of what we communicate nonverbally and the impact it has on others, in forming impressions and perceptions relating to us. Negative signals, can do a lot of damage to how we are perceived by others, therefore impacting our relationships. On the other hand, positive nonverbal gestures can have a halo affect, where everything we do is viewed in a positive light. If we’re aware of nonverbal communication cues and their meaning, we can break existing habits (e.g. nervous gestures such as self soothing) and/or create positive habits (e.g. showing nonverbal respect to others), altering our behaviour to create a better impression. Just as we can adapt our words, we can also adapt some nonverbal cues. Though, important to note, nobody can control all nonverbal cues in unison, or involuntary cues (e.g. blink rate, eyelid flutter, shoulder shrugs, autonomic nervous system cues). If nothing else, please take from this post a good reason to evaluate your own nonverbal behaviours to ensure you present your best self. You'll notice the difference in how you are positively perceived.