Making A Phenomenon

Making a Murderer is a Netflix original documentary series (spoilers ahead!) that details a ten year story of a Wisconsin man who was wrongfully convicted of a sexual assault and served 18 years in prison before being exonerated, just to be charged and convicted again in the murder of a young photographer. The show has captivated the nation and for the last few months has been a topic of conversation throughout the country.

The documentary was produced and directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos over the course of ten years as the directors investigated all the intricacies of the case.[1] In 1985, Steven Avery was picked up by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department after a prominent member of society was sexually assaulted. The victim was able to positively identify Avery as her attacker, but Avery maintained his innocence. With the assistance of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, Avery was exonerated by DNA evidence and released from prison after serving 18 years for a crime he did not commit.[2] DNA testing also indicated who the actual perpetrator was. That man was Gregory Allen, an individual who had a history of criminal activity and was then imprisoned for another assault he had committed.

After Avery’s release, the public soon learned that a local police officer had gone to the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department and told them that they should look into Gregory Allen for the assault because he had committed similar acts and fit the description. The department actively chose not to do so because they were convinced Avery was their guy. Years later while serving time for a different assault, Allen confessed to the crime that Avery had been convicted of. It was discovered that the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department was notified of the confession and again chose not to act. With evidence to support the sheriff’s department’s failures, upon his release, Avery filed a civil lawsuit for 36 million dollars against Manitowoc County and the Sheriff’s Department. In 2005, while depositions were being conducted in the civil suit, Avery was arrested again, but this time for the murder of a young woman. Teresa Halbach was a 25-year-old photographer who had been to the Avery property to photograph a vehicle before she disappeared. After days of relentless searching, her vehicle and some of her burnt remains were discovered on Avery’s property. Four months later, Avery’s 16 year old nephew, Brendan Dassey, was arrested after confessing to helping his uncle Steven assault and murder Halbach.[3]

Avery and his nephew were tried in separate trials and both found guilty of murder in 2007. Both were sentenced to life in prison. The series discusses different phases of each of the trials from the investigation, discovery, pre-trial hearings, trial, sentencing and attempts at post-conviction relief. The documentary is portrayed predominately from the Avery family and the defense attorneys’ point of view. As the investigation and trial unfolds, some questionable acts are committed in the prosecution of Avery and his nephew. To start, due to Avery’s pending civil litigation against Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, the department was not supposed to be involved with the Halbach investigation beyond lending any necessary equipment. However, the defense aptly demonstrates how a Manitowoc agent seemed to play a role in each critical development of the investigation and Avery’s prosecution. For example, a Manitowoc detective found the key to Halbach’s car inside Avery’s bedroom but only after the property had already been searched by other investigators six times. The key was found in plain view by that Manitowoc officer. Manitowoc was also responsible for finding a bullet fragment in Avery’s garage after officers had searched the garage on numerous occasions. Additionally, Mantinowoc encouraged their DNA analyst to somehow prove Halbach’s presence in Avery’s home or garage. Avery’s defense attorneys also discovered that a vial of Avery’s blood from his 1985 conviction had been tampered with. The seal on the box in which it was placed was broken and the lid was unexplainably punctured by a needle. These facts outraged the public and made the entire prosecution questionable. The most egregious acts however occurred with Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey.

Dassey was just 16 years old at the time of the investigation but he was repeatedly interrogated alone by investigators. Each time, Dassey would “confess” to having assisted in different ways with the assault and death of Halbach. The documentary series includes numerous video and audio clips of Dassey’s interrogations and phone call conversations. It is clear that Dassey was particularly vulnerable and easily pressured into providing the investigators with the information they wanted to hear, regardless of what the truth was. Dassey later recanted his confession and admitted to his mother that he made everything up, but it was too late. Due to his extremely inadequate defense counsel at the time of the confession, little damage control could be done. That coerced confession was then used by the prosecution to publically paint a very gruesome picture of the assault and murder of Halbach at the hands of Avery and Dassey.

Making a Murderer is a thrilling documentary series and worth the watch. From the perspective of someone working inside the innocence world, the documentary was fantastic. It aptly showed the different phases of a conviction and the complications involved. It also demonstrated how the process of our criminal justice system can, and sometimes does lead, to a wrongful conviction. A lot of people think criminal convictions are black and white; the police find the bad guy, the prosecution proves it, and then the bad guy goes to jail. But the truth is, it is not that simple. There are so many critical junctures in a criminal prosecution where something can go terribly wrong, which could lead to the wrong person going to jail. From police misconduct or prosecutorial misconduct, to faulty evidence or coerced confessions. All of these possibilities are raised and examined in Making a Murderer.

In my opinion, the greatest triumph of Making a Murderer is that it has rocketed the conversation about wrongful convictions to the headlines. People are enthralled as well as aggrieved at the idea that innocent men and women could possibly be sent to prison. One of the biggest obstacles faced by the innocence movement was getting the general public to believe that wrongful convictions were possible. Now, after years of hard work and the assistance of stories like Making a Murderer, the idea of wrongful convictions is becoming commonplace. People often also struggle with the idea that any sane person could ever confess to a crime they did not commit. This documentary painstakingly showed how improper interrogation techniques can easily make an individual succumb to admitting to something they did not do. This documentary is a win for the innocence movement because it encourages a discussion on wrongful convictions as well as raises questions about the surety of our criminal justice system.

The general complaint against the series is that the documentary is biased towards Avery’s innocence. The documentary is focused on Avery, his family, and his defense. This places the viewer on Avery’s side from the start. Even the title suggests someone was framed. In criminal investigations, it’s important that the investigating parties remain objective. The same is not true in a documentary however. Undoubtedly, the filmmakers had to be practical in how much of the case they discussed, or the series would have been months long. There were times of frustration when the viewer wanted questions answered. However, this is the reality of the case–there were too many unanswered questions, too many alternative theories not able to be tested. There simply was too much doubt.

A phenomenon has taken place in the weeks since Making a Murderer was released. People all across the nation are discussing wrongful convictions. People are now questioning and thinking critically of our criminal justice system. Most importantly, they have begun to accept that wrongful convictions exists and steps need to be taken to correct the problem.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Making_a_Murderer

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Avery

[3] Making a Murderer

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