Spoiler Alert: This article contains details from the entire series of ‘Making a Murderer’ on Netflix.
In the past fifteen months, the canon of ‘true crime’ has grown considerably in both content and prestige. First came ‘Serial’, co-created by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, which revisited the case of Adnan Syed, convicted for the 1999 murder of his eighteen-year old former girlfriend, Hae Min Lee. Following that came Andrew Jarecki’s ‘The Jinx’, a six-part HBO documentary that sought to implicate the New-York real estate heir in the disappearance of his wife, Kathleen Durst in 1982. The latest edition to the canon is Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos’s ‘Making a Murder’, a ten-episode Netflix documentary that examines the 2007 conviction of a Wisconsin man named Steven Avery.
Within one series, we have become a community of deluded, self-proclaimed, sofa-bound detectives and forensic psychologists. Jeremy Buting, the defence lawyer for Steven Avery confirms, ‘I’ve never seen something that goes behind the scenes like this to see what its like to prepare for a serious trail? The public is given a sense of being jurors on this case; what would they do? That turns it into the ultimate reality show.’ In fact, ‘Making a Murderer’ has definitely been seen before, and brings Truman Capote’s work In Cold Blood to the rear view window. Capote’s masterfully written tale of the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb in 1959 was published fifty years ago and remains the genre’s benchmark work. ‘Our appetite for solving crimes goes back centuries, but its so much easier to access these stories now,’ says clinical forensic psychologist Michael Berry. ‘In America, they’ve had TV in court for years. The whole case can be brought to you at home.’ ‘Making a Murderer’ represents this peak of a 21st-century trend in long form true crime, as Ricciardi and Demos moved to Wisconsin to document the ten-year long real life story.
In July of 1985, Steven Avery was picked up by Mantiwoc County Sheriff’s Department after a woman named Penny Beernsten was brutally attacked while out for a run in the park. Beernsten identified Avery as the attacker and he was sentenced to thirty-two years in prison. After serving eighteen of those years, DNA evidence exonerated Avery and revealed Gregory Allen as the actual assailant.
In light of the fact the sheriff’s department ignored reports that they had the wrong man, Avery filed a thirty-six-million-dollar lawsuit against the county. In 2005, while the defendants in that civil suit were being deposed, Avery was arrested again—this time for the murder of a twenty-five-year-old photographer named Teresa Halbach. Four months later, his sixteen-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, was arrested as well, after he confessed to helping Avery rape and murder Halbach and burn her body. In 2007, after separate trials, both were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
Because of the pending civil litigation, the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department was supposed to have nothing to do with the Halbach investigation. Yet members of the department were involved in the case at every critical juncture. One of them was allegedly left alone with Halbach’s vehicle for several hours after it was located and before Avery’s blood was discovered inside. Another found the key to Halbach’s S.U.V. in Avery’s home—in plain view, even though the property had previously been searched by other investigators six times. A third found a bullet fragment in Avery’s garage, again after the premises had been repeatedly searched. The analyst who identified Halbach’s DNA on that bullet had been instructed by a county detective to try to come up with evidence that Halbach had been in Avery’s house or garage. Perhaps most damning, the defence discovered that a vial of Avery’s blood, on file from the 1985 case, had been tampered with; the outer and inner seal on the box in which it was kept had been broken, and the vial itself had a puncture in the top, as from a hypodermic needle.
However, the most tragic and most egregious misconduct shown in the documentary concerns Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey – a quiet, profoundly naïve, learning-disabled teenager with no prior convictions, who is interrogated four times without his lawyer present. The young boy is cajoled into providing an increasingly lurid torture scene that culminates in Halbach’s murder by gunshot. Dassey repeatedly recanted his confession, including in a letter to the judge and on the witness stand. But it was too late. When Dassey’s mother asked him how he came up with so many details if he was innocent, he said, ‘I guessed.’ ‘You don’t guess with something like this, Brendan,’ she replied. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘that’s what I do with my homework, too.’
The show has led to near-universal outrage about the verdicts and as of January 12th, more than four hundred thousand people had signed a petition to President Obama to free Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, to no end of course, as the President has no power to pardon Avery, who was convicted of state crimes, not federal ones. Certainly, the documentary raises serious and credible allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct. In a tragically poignant phone call from Avery to his parents, he exposes a fundamental flaw in the American Justice system; ‘Poor people lose. Poor people lose all the time.’
So, how is a murderer made? By corrupt cops, a flawed criminal justice system, a grossly unequal society, a bloodthirsty pre-trial publicity campaign or eighteen years of wrongful imprisonment?
You don’t need to have filed a thirty-six-million-dollar suit against law enforcement in America to be detained, denied basic rights, and have evidence planted on you. Simply being black can suffice. Towards the end of the series, Dean Strang, Steven Avery’s defence lawyer, notes that most of the problems in the American criminal-justice system stem from ‘unwarranted certitude’—what he calls ‘a tragic lack of humility of everyone who participates.’ Ultimately, however, ‘Making a Murderer’ shares that very flaw.
Penny Beernsten declined participating in the show, chiefly because, while her own experience with the criminal-justice system had led her to be wary, the filmmakers struck her as having already made up their minds, ‘It was very clear from the outset that they believed Steve was innocent, I didn’t feel they were journalists seeking the truth. I felt like they had a foregone conclusion and were looking for a forum to which to express it.’ The vast majority of misconduct by law enforcement is motivated not by spite for an individual, but by the belief that the end justifies the means—that facts can be distilled, only if by doing so, a dangerous criminal is put behind bars.
Arguably, Ricciardi and Demos adopt the same method, but instead stack the deck to support Avery and as a result, end up mirroring the entity they are trying to discredit. The filmmakers minimize or leave out many aspects of Avery’s less than savoury past, including multiple alleged incidents of physical and sexual violence. They also omit important evidence against him, including the fact that Brendan Dassey confessed to helping Avery move Halbach’s S.U.V. into his junkyard, where Avery lifted the hood and removed the battery cable. Investigators subsequently found DNA from Avery’s perspiration on the hood latch—evidence that would be nearly impossible to plant. What if it turns out he is guilty?
Beneath the outrage at corrupt and fallible power structures, lie some deeply uncomfortable questions casting doubts over our appetite for ‘binge-watching’ true crime. Ultimately, true-crime documentaries turn people’s private tragedies into public entertainment. If you lost a loved one through violent murder, would you be ‘cool’ with people being entertained by it—‘bingeing’ on numerous episodes as though it was a particularly toothsome packet of popcorn?
This is certainly not to suggest that reporting on violence is always morally abhorrent. But neither ‘Serial’ nor ‘Making a Murderer’ ever address the question of what rights and considerations should be extended to victims of violent crime, and under what circumstances those might justifiably be suspended. Partway through the series, we hear a ‘Dateline NBC’ producer discuss the death of Teresa Halbach in disturbingly chipper tones. ‘This is the perfect ‘Dateline’s story’, she says. ‘It’s a story with a twist, it grabs people’s attention…Right now murder is hot, that’s what everyone wants, that’s what the competition wants, and we’re trying to beat out the other networks to get that perfect murder story.’ Again, the clip feels manipulative, as it suggests the producer is shallow and exploitative, even though presented without context. Of course we all think we are on the side of angels, and so Ricciardi and Demos assume their work is too intellectually serious to be thoughtless and too morally worthy to be cruel, unlike the traditional true crime shows.
Surely a fair and just trial consists of a defence and a prosecution mounting biased arguments on behalf of their clients to make the strongest, one-sided case they can. However, the revelation in the penultimate episode that the special prosecutor Ken Kratz was caught up in a sexting scandal a few years after the trial in 2010, feels like a sly and hypocritical attempt to suddenly dismiss anything the prosecution ever presented against Avery. All it seems to do is swap one absolute for another, and quickly comes to resemble the system it seeks to correct—like the Mantiwoc’s sheriff’s department, someone else’s anguish is a trifling price to pay for the greater cause that the documentary seeks to serve.
The implications of thinking we can make our own deductions and actually get involved are dark indeed when what we are talking about is a high-profile murder trial. It is easy to express outrage, comforting to have closure, and satisfying to know all the answers. But before signing that pointless petition, as defence lawyers remind people every day, it is also reasonable to doubt.