In this post I intend to discuss various aspects of the documentary series Making a Murderer, currently available in full on Netflix. This isn’t a ‘review’ of the show as such, as that doesn’t really feel appropriate given the nature of the series. If you haven’t watched it and are keen to see the whole thing ‘fresh’, without anything being given away in advance, then it would be best to return and read this post after you’ve seen it.
Making a Murderer is a very powerful series that has received a fair amount of media attention, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the case has sent shockwaves across certain parts of the public consciousness in the United States and beyond. The first episodes tell the story of Steven Avery’s early life, his wrongful 1985 rape conviction at the age of 23, and his 18-year incarceration. It’s a harrowing story, and at times is very difficult to watch. But the worst and most disturbing part of the series is of course the depiction of his trial and conviction in 2007 for the 2005 murder of 25-year old Teresa Halbach. At the time of writing, there is a petition on change.org with almost half a million signatures calling on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to pardon Avery. During the course of the investigation against Avery, his 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, gave a confession to police indicating he was complicit in the murder. The documentary gives the impression Dassey’s confession was coerced in order to help build the case against Avery, but as concern grew about the unreliability of the confession it was not admitted as evidence in Avery’s trial, although it was central to Dassey’s own conviction for the same crime.
As the programme regularly points out, this is a very emotive case stemming from the horrific murder of a young woman. The documentary suggests that the prosecution manipulated the natural horror the killing inspired in normal people to mobilize opinion against Avery. The documentary further suggests that local police had a long-running vendetta against Avery stretching back to before his 1985 conviction for rape; and the clear suggestion is that Avery’s lawsuit against the county for their handling of his case provided motive for the police to frame him, in order to destroy his public standing as an exoneree and so he’d drop his $36 million dollar lawsuit against the county.
In some parts of society it is of course anathema to talk about police corruption or brutality, but anyone over the age of ten who is not ideologically wedded to the saintliness of the police knows that frame-ups do happen. Not every allegation of frame-up is true, of course, but in this case Avery’s lawyers, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, presented what seemed like compelling evidence that the case against Avery had been manufactured by law enforcement. The general tone of the series did put one in mind of other famous frame-ups and miscarriages of justice, which are all too common in American history and also familiar to British audiences from the cases of people like the Guildford 4 and the Birmingham 6. Such cases normally affect people from marginalized and easily demonized parts of the population, and most of the iconic cases in the USA (like that of Mumia Abu-Jamal) affect black people. Although Avery is white and not associated with a particular political cause, he is from a poor and poorly educated background (the show indicated both Avery and Dassey have IQs of around 70) and his lawsuit had the potential to cause great harm to the state and the reputation of individual figures in the local law enforcement community.
Making a Murderer feels like a horror series for much of the time, and is certainly one of the most gruelling things I’ve ever seen. The way that police, and later even his own defense team, elicited ‘confessions’ from the 16 year old, intellectually challenged Brendan Dassey, was particularly disturbing. The only ray of light appears when Avery hires Strang and Buting as his lawyers, who provide some hope and a glimmer of human feeling, compassion, and integrity in a situation where none was evident elsewhere. The full might of the state was brought to bear to secure a conviction against Avery and Dassey, and the judicial system comes across as unconscionable, loathsome and repellent. The defense team was not allowed to introduce theories about other killers in the case, but the prosecution said in their closing arguments that if the jury was to believe that the cops framed Avery, they had also to believe that the cops killed Halbach–a patently ludicrous suggestion. As the defense themselves had suggested, it would have been quite feasible for another party to manipulate the well-known animus of the police against Avery by planting a minimum of circumstantial evidence from which they would inevitably seek to build a case. The defense team have expressed their belief that the killer is still out there while Avery and Dassey spend their lives behind bars.
While watching this series I kept waiting for the moment when things would change, when something would happen that would turn things around and Avery and Dassey would be released. I never expected a clean ending–that rarely happens in real life–but I didn’t expect that, almost a decade after the trial, they would still be in jail. On the strength of the evidence shown in the series it seems impossible for a conviction to hold water. Of course, there are plenty of accusations on the internet that the show is biased and that it did not cover parts of the evidence. That hasn’t changed my own overall impression, though, and on the whole I think most of the people who have seen this have come away shocked that such an apparent miscarriage of justice has not been redressed.
Avery has a new lawyer who is trying to get a new appeal for his conviction. There are new stories and theories emerging about the case on almost a daily basis. It certainly feels like there is a lot more to come, and there is talk of Netflix doing another season. If they do, I hope they get the filmmakers to add subtitles to accompany the audio of interview transcripts, as some of them could be very hard to follow.