Making a Murderer: Pamela Sturm, 'The Chosen One'

Part 1, Episode 5. Approximately 47 minutes into the episode, or 12 minutes in from the end.

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 the public often portrays Sturm 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. 

 

Pam Sturm–Body Language Analysis

Kratz

“Ms Sturm were you familiar with the Avery salvage property?”

Sturm shows a microexpression of anger, as soon as Kratz starts, on the word “Ms”. It’s a tough one to see, even to a trained eye. It’s mostly in her right eye. A slight narrowing as the lids tighten and her eyebrows pull together. Is this down to the situation of her as a witness, or is it aimed at Kratz?

As Sturm expresses anger she inhales deeply–she’s stressed, but wouldn’t we all be in those circumstances? 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, she switches her pose 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 she has an air of superiority.

In just seconds, our subconscious brain has seen these behaviours and we’ve formed our opinion about her. Anger, hiding, superiority–the impression is a negative one. 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 behaviours, to objectively understand what’s going on. 

 Superiority

Superiority

 

There are several behaviours throughout Sturm’s interview which suggest her feelings towards Avery are negative. Right from the start, as soon as Kratz mentions Avery, Sturm glares. Followed by a microexpression of contempt (hatred/disdain), a momentary tension of one side of the lips (her left/our right), on the word “property”.

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 his property. 

Sturm

“No, I'm not at… I wasn't at all." 

Sturm shakes her head congruently as she speaks. But, by the end of her statement, she shrugs one shoulder, very slightly, showing a lack of confidence in her words.

If you’re already familiar with my posts, or with body language analysis, 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 means; not confident in words. And let’s look at the context; she corrects her use of tense, from “I’m not” to “I wasn’t”. If she needs to correct herself, she obviously isn’t confident in her words.

A one-sided shrug is a common behaviour. Often, 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 now, she does 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. 

Sturm

“All I knew it was a 40 acre plot, salvage yard for… vehicles.”

Again, Sturm nods in congruence with her words. As she reaches the end of her statement, she hesitates with a prolonged “for”, then pauses as she tries to find the right word–“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 a shoulder shrug nonverbally say, "I can't do this". I suspect this is about trying to articulate the right word (vehicles). Most likely the contempt would be towards herself in her attempt to find the right word. 

Kratz

“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 this his attempt to manipulate her answer–a signal suggesting she say “no”? 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.

Sturm

“No sir we didn’t.”

Sturm shrugs both shoulders, showing confidence in what she’s saying. You have to be quick to spot this due to the camera work–we miss the raising, but see the dropping of the shoulders. 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. 

Kratz

“Why don’t you show us then, where did you and Nikole start looking?”

Sturm isn’t visible at this point, so let’s jump to the next question.

Kratz

“Let me stop you right there Pam. Can you tell the jury what you were looking for?”

Sturm

“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 eye blocks (with her 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 behaviour here is in her thumbs. When our thumbs are elevated, the more positive our mental state or confidence. 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 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 its entirety, I doubt she would be displaying this behaviour. 

Kratz

“And after looking at those rows of cars, where did you then look?”

Sturm

“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.”

Again, Sturm isn’t visible at this point, though the delivery of her speech sounds fluid and authentic. 

Kratz interrupts

"And did you do that?"

The camera clips back to Sturm as she shrugs just one shoulder. Remember a single shoulder shrug shows a lack of confidence in words. It’s 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 each and every one”.

Sturm avoids giving a direct response…

Sturm

“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 behaviour which suggests something is amiss with her account of the number of cars searched. The first being the shoulder shrug and the second being the avoidance of a direct answer. 

Sturm looks away from the exhibit/image, as she starts to recall the chain of events:

“And I came upon this car–

Sturm’s eyelids flutter, a sign of emotional turmoil or high cognitive load, as she recounts this part of the event.

“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–

Sturm exhales to release stress.

“and–

Another exhale.

“I thought this is really strange. This is really strange. And it looked like a little SUV like I was looking for, a RAV 4 Toyota SUV.

She nods in congruence with her words, then touches her forehead–a ‘self-soothing’ or pacifying behaviour to bring comfort when we feel insecure or stressed.

“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, you know, oh my goodness maybe this is it.”

Sturm taps her heart with her fingers, mimicking the beat of her heart, then inhales deeply.

As she speaks, she uses her hands to illustrate her words. Her gestures, expressions and vocal delivery all seem aligned with her words, flowing fluently, both verbally and nonverbally.

As if lost in her own words, Sturm pauses with her hand on her heart–her cue to Kratz that she has completed her response.

“Let me stop you right there Pam…”

Her attention diverts to Kratz and her behaviour suddenly becomes odd. This does not confirm deception, though it could add to people’s dislike.

Composing herself, momentarily, with a false smile (see screenshot below), Sturm apologises. Her head drops and she pulls down the outer corner of her eye. This could be one of several things, either, a blocking behaviour, an attempt to catch a run of tears or suggest tears are present. It looks like an emotional display, genuine or fake, so I search for a genuine expression of sadness to back it up.

Only one in ten people can fake genuine sadness, so if I see it, I nudge closer to believing she genuinely feels emotional. The facial expression of sadness is observed in the inward and upward movement of the eyebrows and a downward turned mouth. It’s difficult to see in Sturm. Her eyebrows are not clearly visible and her hand conceals her mouth.

 False Smile

False Smile

Sturm goes on to describe her worry 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?

Kratz

“When you saw this Ms Sturm, what did you do?”

Sturm

“I became very, very worried for our safety,

Sturm’s palm-down, definitive hand gestures are congruent with her words, as is her facial expression of fear and her eyelid flutter which again shows her inner emotional turmoil.

“because 90% this is probably Teresa’s car–

Sturm’s hands are now palm-up, but still congruent with her words. We generally show palms-up when we ask or question.

“and we’re in danger. So I called Nikole’s name.

Sturm’s emotional expression is one of fear, she’s feeling and showing the emotions of her experience. She touches her nose, indicating stress. Face and body touch increases during stress. Many people believe a nose touch is indicative of deception. However, this is a common body language myth. Generally, all we can decipher from a nose touch is stress. We can touch our nose when deception is or isn’t present, so we can never assume it to mean deception.

“I think I maybe even screamed. I shouldn’t have, but I did.

Sturm’s lips tense and stretch, one of the hallmarks of fear. Her expression and speech are aligned, as are her palm-up gestures, as she goes on to describe…

“And then went running to the area where she was. I said Nikole, Nikole, you have to come and see this car. 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 overwhelming emotion. Usually, but not always, sadness. Is that why I couldn't confirm genuine sadness? Was it because the emotion expressed was fear?

Kratz

“Did you attempt to verify the identification of this car?”

Sturm

“Yes”

Kratz

“And how was that done?”

Sturm

“My daughter Nikole, brought her cell phone along and we–I should back up–Ryan gave us a direct line to Sheriff Pagel in case we found something.”

Sturm nods, nonverbally confirming her words.

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?”. 

Sturm

“So I called Sheriff Pagel–”

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 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 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?

Sturm

“…and I said I think I found the vehicle” 

Kratz

“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. 

Sturm

“I believe we entered at 10 to 10 and by 10:20 - 10:25 we had found the vehicle”

Sturm nods to confirm her words. It’s here I can finally confirm an expression of sadness–sadness combined with fear.

 Sturm shows a combined expression of sadness with fear.

Sturm shows a combined expression of sadness with fear.

Kratz

“Ms Sturm, do you know how many vehicles are on this property?”

Sturm

“I didn’t at the time, I had no idea”

Sturm looks at the image of the salvage yard, nodding as she speaks. She is upset, we can hear the emotion through her voice and breath.

Kratz

“Looking at it now, do you think you got lucky?”

Sturm

“Yeah, well not lucky, God showed us the way, I do believe that”

Sturm nods affirmatively, finishing her statement with a lift of the head, another show of superiority. 

 Sturm expresses superiority.

Sturm expresses superiority.

Kratz

“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. At the same time, she places her index finger on her nose.

As previously mentioned, contrary to common belief, nose touching is not an indicator of deception. Instead, we class it as a stress indicator. This gesture is a little different in that it’s prolonged, so has a different meaning, generally 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 regarding 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. 

Sturm

“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. 

 

Summary

I deliberately ploughed through Sturm’s nonverbal behaviour with a fine-toothed comb, for a couple of reasons:

  1. 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.

  2. 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 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 she 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?

  • The anticipation of questions. Was there a question that Sturm was hoping wouldn't come up?

  • A cluster of negative gestures (shoulder shrug, avoiding the 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 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 might not have been consciously aware of that. After all, she truly believes that God led her there. Could Sturm be just another pawn in the charade? 

 

Final Thoughts

Using Pam Sturm’s analysis to improve the way you communicate?

I'll leave you with one last thought to consider–the importance of what you communicate via your behaviour, and the impact it has on others in forming impressions and perceptions relating to you.

Negative signals can do a lot of damage to how we are perceived by others, therefore impacting our relationships. Positive signals, on the other hand, can have a halo effect, where everything we do is seen in a positive light.

If you’re aware of nonverbal communication cues and their meaning, you can break existing habits and create positive habits, altering behaviour to create a better impression. Just as we can adapt our words, we can also adapt some nonverbal cues. For example, some nervous gestures like self-soothing behaviours (face/body touching) can be reduced. Though, it’s important to note; nobody can control all nonverbal cues in unison, or involuntary cues, such as blink rate, eyelid flutter, shoulder shrugs and autonomic nervous system.

Part of my purpose for writing these reviews is to teach you about nonverbal behaviour so that you can use your knowledge within your interactions. In this review, I’ve touched on the importance of the first impression on how people form their opinions of us. You can alter your behaviour to improve the way people perceive and interact with you. If nothing else, evaluate your behaviour–and notice the difference in how you are positively perceived.

Sophie ZadehComment