Netflix’s new documentary series has set the internet alight with theories, but, says Dotty Winters, what’s the real lesson of this incendiary case? Contains spoilers.
I’ve just finished watching something terrible on Netflix. The first episode left me angry and bewildered, the next nine did nothing to improve my mood. By the end, I was full of rage – and terrified. If you’ve watched it too, you’ve probably been through a similar journey and, like me, are now embarking on a mission to make everyone else you know watch it too.
Netflix’s Making a Murderer isn’t really a story about a murder; as with so much real-crime programming the victim gets somewhat lost in the story. Ten episodes left me knowing very little about professional photographer, youth volleyball coach and keen traveller Teresa Halbach or the life she lost. This series also isn’t a ‘whodunnit’, it’s more of a ‘why the fuck don’t these law enforcement officers care whether this man dunnit or about justice for the victim?’
This series outlines the case of Steven Avery, a man who was exonerated by DNA evidence after 18 years in prison for rape. He embarked on a legal case, designed to highlight corruption in the Sheriff’s department and judicial system and was then promptly arrested, tried and convicted for murder by the same organisations.
The most generous interpretation of the case set out by the series is that those involved in the State’s case suffered from tunnel vision, refusing to notice or investigate evidence which didn’t fit with their theory of the case. Clearly the documentary makers could be subjected to the same accusation, although I’d say that the duty upon each is different.
“While Steven’s story, that of potentially being falsely convicted twice, is a compelling hook, this series is more about things which might be happening far more often than any of us are comfortable imagining.”
A quick dig around on the internet seems to suggest some details were omitted from the series (hardly surprising, as they apparently had more than 700 hours of footage to edit down), but there doesn’t seem to be much by way of accusation that the content of the documentary was in itself fabricated, only that it presents a specific view.
There are some elements of this case which can be classified as ‘Normal for Wisconsin’, a state which seems to specialise in striking facial hair, bizarre press conferences and some unfortunately quirky legal practices (including a particularly odd system for deciding whether someone can be deemed capable for questioning; the assigned IQ for two of the convicted men in this case would have classified them as having mild learning difficulties in other states). Other elements of this case are things which could happen anywhere.
It would be so easy to disappear into a black hole on Reddit, discussing the finer details of this case: did people do certain things, are people intentionally suppressing or modifying evidence? If we ignore the granular detail though, there seems to be true horror in the big picture.
If it’s true that, for example, Sheriff’s deputies who had been excluded from the case had the opportunity to plant inculpatory evidence, then in some ways we don’t need to know for definite that they did. We need only acknowledge that the system is badly broken.
For me, the parts of the story which interest me the most were those which involve Steven’s nephew and co-accused Brendan Dassey. Brendan was 16, with a verbal reasoning IQ of 69 and, by his own admission, “can’t help being stupid”. Video footage shows deputies and an investigator appearing to manoeuvre him into a confession, which he then repeatedly retracts.
“The most generous interpretation of the case set out by the series is that those involved in the State’s case suffered from tunnel vision, refusing to notice or investigate evidence which didn’t fit with their theory of the case.”
If the idea of a false confession sends you into ‘no smoke without fire’ mode, then the footage is a must-watch. Recent figures by the Innocence Project (a non-profit organisation which uses (usually) DNA evidence to overturn false convictions) show that one in four exonerated people made a false confession, suggesting there are some real gaps in the legal process.
While Steven’s story, that of potentially being falsely convicted twice, is a compelling hook, this series is more about things which might be happening far more often than any of us are comfortable imagining.
We may never know who killed Teresa Halbach. The right people may be in jail for this crime, but it’s hard to argue that they are there as the result of proper due process from a system that we all put so much trust in. Fairness and due process are the only way to ensure justice for victims, and are all that stands between you, or me, and false imprisonment.
Last month, director Quentin Tarantino faced backlash for his comments about the police and made it clear that he completely rejects the idea that recent high-profile police brutality cases were the result of a few ‘bad apples’, claiming instead they are the result of a corrupt system.
The information presented in Making a Murderer would seem to support that. It may focus on the US system, but it hasn’t left me confident that similar things couldn’t happen here. And it has left me with one big question: are we content to live in a world where we assume law enforcers won’t game the system, or would we rather fight for a system that is harder to game?3176 Views
Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.