Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Making a Murderer

This post contains discussion of the basic plot of Making a Murderer. I don't reveal the outcome of the series or linger on too many details, but to err on the side of caution I would characterize it as containing mild spoilers. 

Unless you've been living under a rock, you've heard of Netflix's original documentary series, Making a Murderer. Shot over a period of 10 years, the 10 episode series relates the tale of Steven Avery--a man wrongly imprisoned for 18 years for sexual assault, exonerated by DNA evidence, and rearrested for murder only two years later.

There's no doubt the True Crime genre is hot right now--last year Serial and The Jinx had us all on the edge of our seats. And Americans have always been enthralled with true tales of violence and death. Just look at the popularity of series like America's Most Wanted, Unsolved Mysteries, and the immortality of killers like Jack the Ripper. I don't know what it is about crime, procedurals, and serial killers that fascinates us so. Maybe it's about turning a mirror on the worst part of humanity that titillates us...and makes us feel better about our own ordinary lives.

Making a Murderer does not provide this kind of escape. The mirror isn't turned on the dark heart of one person, rather the mirror shows the unfortunate reality of our own justice system. There is a myth of American justice, of the presumption of innocence, but if you take one thing away from Making a Murderer it should be this: the system is broken.

I went into Making a Murderer not really knowing what to expect. I had read some reviews so I knew the plot basics (though it feels weird to call people's real life tragedies "plot"), but nothing can really prepare you for the way things unfold in the series. Disbelief, shock, anger, rage, disbelief (again), sadness...these are all feelings I experienced. I also talked to the television a lot while watching. Things like, "I can't believe this," and a lot of profanity were thrown around my apartment.

This is pretty much what I was thinking every time one of the Sheriff deputies was on screen.

In case you didn't know this about me, I'm a lawyer. I took criminal law classes, I participated in trial competitions, and I worked with my state's prosecutors during law school. So I wouldn't call myself naive or uninformed about how our system works. But I was still completely gobsmacked. Maybe because I am a lawyer and an officer of the court, I believe in the fundamental rightness of the system. I believe that most of the time we get it right and the cops and courts WANT to get it right. So the idea of a conspiracy to convict the wrong guy just seems so unlikely as to be fundamentally inconceivable.

At least...I used to believe this. Now I only feel sad. Because I think I was wrong.

I have read tons of articles about the racism and classism inherent in our system. I've shared some on Facebook. I know how the deck is stacked against those who are poor or not white or looked down on as the dregs of society. I know that the death penalty is not applied fairly and I know that the drug laws aren't either. But to see how everyone and everything in the system works against Steven Avery and his nephew at every step of the process, even one of their own defense lawyers, puts everything into cold, stark, reality. I now feel sad and cynical.

I've spent a lot of time and words so far talking about how the show made me feel and how it has altered my personal perception. But is Making a Murderer actually any good? Should you watch it? Yes. In fact, hell yes. This is a show that I now feel obligated to recommend to you. Not just because it's a masterful work of documentary film making (it is) and not just because it is utterly compelling (it is that too), but because it feels almost like it should be required viewing if you want to call yourself knowledgeable about the country you live in. Sure, Steven Avery is just one man. But if you think this couldn't happen anywhere in America, then you are deluding yourself.

The question a lot of people ask upon finishing the series is, "so did he do it?" My answer is "I don't know." But that's not even really the point. I don't want to say it doesn't matter whether he did it, because that is a gross insult to the victim, Teresa Halbach, and her family. Teresa Halbach died. Whether Steven Avery is the one who killed her or not, there is no doubt that she died horribly, that her family went through hell, and that they deserve to know who perpetrated this crime and have some measure of justice (or maybe revenge?). But the fact is, this documentary centers on Steven Avery, not Teresa Halbach.

When I say that it "doesn't matter" whether Steven Avery committed the crime in question, it's only because after watching hours of footage detailing the evidence and the trial in this case, it all seems almost preposterous. I won't give away the ending here, and just like whether he did it doesn't seem to matter, the outcome has almost the same feel. It's not the ending and the verdict that you remember, it's the sad journey that got you there.

The series doesn't cover all the evidence, and maybe it would be impossible to expect it to. I encourage you to check out Vulture's excellent coverage of the show which includes recaps of what is left out of the episodes. Some of it helps Steven's case, and some of it hurts it. But even if you know everything. Even with ALL the's clear the police and the prosecutor and the system were out to get this guy.

Was it because he was poor? Has a low IQ? Or that Steven Avery had the audacity to challenge the authority in his county and state with a 36 million lawsuit in response to his wrongful incarceration? I don't know. Maybe all of the above. But if you can watch Making a Murderer and truly believe that nobody planted/tampered with/or otherwise altered the evidence in the case, please let me know who you are because I think you might be a unicorn.

At the end of the day, I don't know how to react to this show. I am angry, but I am also sad. It's not because of the outcome, which again I won't discuss here, but because this happened at all. Because Teresa Halbach died, because it's clear to me the authorities conspired against Steven Avery, because I now believe that this kind of thing probably happens frequently. I don't know what, if anything, can be done to prevent it from happening again. Probably nothing. But I know that I can tell you to watch this show and it might just change the way you think. And isn't that the best thing you can say about a documentary?

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