How easy would it be for the state to convict you of a crime that you did not commit? How much can an innocent man withstand when faced with the full, soul-crushing might of the US criminal-justice system?
These are the lingering questions that will echo in viewers’ minds after watching Netflix’s new documentary series Making a Murderer.
The 10-hour, 10-episode series tells the story of Steven Avery — a Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, native — who spent 18 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder in 1985. In 2003, newly discovered DNA evidence exonerated Avery, to the dismay and embarrassment of the Manitowoc County Sherriff’s Department.
Once freed, Avery became something of a local celebrity, and drew the attention of then Governor Jim Doyle, state congressmen, and the Wisconsin Innocence Project. In search of restitution for being wrongfully denied of his liberty for 18 years of his life, Avery filed a civil lawsuit in the amount of US$36 million against Manitowoc County.
However, in 2005, shortly after his lawyers took depositions from several high-ranking police officers involved in his 1985 case, Avery once again found himself in the crosshairs of the Sherriff’s Department.
Teresa Halbach, a local photographer for Auto Trader magazine, went missing on October 31, 2005, just days after the policemen were deposed. The Avery family owned the local auto salvage yard, and Halbach had been sent on assignment to photograph Steven’s car. Steven is allegedly the last person to see Teresa alive, and the police quickly set their sights on the man who had just recently exposed their own wrongdoing and negligence. “Do we have him in custody?” a Manitowoc County policeman can be heard asking over the police radio, before a body is even found.
What unfolds next is a true-crime thriller containing a whirlwind of information that I could not begin to condense in this short space. Through archival footage, news clips, and interviews, Laura Ricciardi and the Moira Demos, the makers of the film, take viewers on a decade-long journey of Avery’s arrest and trial.
Initially, the evidence the state presents against Avery seems overwhelming: Halbach’s charred remains in his backyard, his blood in her Toyota RAV4, and the key to her car found in his bedroom.
Avery’s lawyers, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, adopt a somewhat unorthodox and highly controversial defense. Rather than challenging the veracity of the state’s claims, they argue what they believe is the truth: vengeful police planted the evidence, including Steven’s blood, to which they had access in vials from his previous arrest. Manitowoc County stole 18 years from Steven Avery when he was just 22 years old, and here they are trying to screw him over again.
It was a tough sell, but the evidence Avery’s defense presents to support its case will shock you — and if you’re anything like me, each revelation will have your blood boiling. By most accounts, the film has succeeded in convincing the majority of its viewers, myself included, that the state likely framed Steven Avery for the murder of Teresa Halbach.
The House Always Wins
It’s a chilling conclusion, when we consider the implications. While the particular circumstances of Steven Avery’s case may be unique, injustice in the US court system certainly is not. Making a Murderer forces viewers to confront the cold reality that the state does, in fact, play dirty — and does so often — in order to secure a conviction. If police are convinced that they “have their man,” then the ends justify the means, and all tactics are on the table.
Throughout the film, one gets the sense that whether the accused is actually guilty or innocent is more of a concern for the trial’s observers — the general public and the media — than it is for any of the state’s agents inside the courtroom. The entire ordeal is an onslaught against the defendant, and it is a process that is designed to work against ordinary citizens, especially those without abundant financial means.
The court-appointed lawyers depicted in the film, for example, are a joke. Len Kachinsky, the appointed lawyer for Steven’s co-defendant and nephew Brendan Dassey, is a caricature of incompetence. Worse still, he is eventually exposed to have aided the prosecution to convict his client, despite Dassey’s insistence that he was innocent.
It’s a rigged game, and one that even the most ardent, boot-licking statist with rosy, picturesque views of the criminal-justice system is compelled to face down at the conclusion of this film.
The viewer response to Making a Murderer has been incredible, and a testament to the “plugged-in,” binge-watching, social-media age that we live in. It’s no surprise that most viewers make it through the 10-hour film in relatively short order, and are then spurred to spend many more hours reading updates on the case. The story is intense, and the filmmakers do a masterful job at creating compelling hour-long episodes that each conclude in a dramatic cliffhanger, tailor-made for a Netflix audience.
Only a few weeks after the documentary’s release, the film has already elicited numerous petitions for Avery’s release, each with hundreds of thousands of signatures; a response from the White House; assurances from Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker that Avery “will never be pardoned”; and tirades from Nancy Grace.
Most interesting of all, “internet detectives” on Reddit discovered a new piece of evidence that previously went overlooked within a photograph of Teresa Halbach shown in the film, and Avery’s attorneys say the finding could actually help him get a new trial.
Despite the almost shattering degree of hopelessness the film’s conclusion imparts on its viewers, it is this last bit of news that gives me some sense of optimism. It demonstrates that there is potential still for individuals — when informed, committed, and gathered in a common cause for truth — to have a fighting chance against the hulking behemoth of state power.
Sometimes it only takes one mistake to cause a disaster. One error. One oversight. Or sometimes everything is wrong and nobody knows quite how to fix it. An American city, Flint, Michigan, has poisoned its people. The president has declared a State of Emergency, and FEMA funds and staff are flowing to Flint at this moment. We have no idea how bad the damage will be, but we know that, of all chemicals, lead contamination has huge social costs. This happened because some municipal employees were in over their heads. And then, when tests started coming back with the wrong results, they lied and covered it up. The governor issued a public apology, since both the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality were asleep at the switch. Local government is risky. The incentives to lie and cheat to protect jobs of unaccountable bureaucrats are everywhere. The job security this buys them comes directly at the expense of the people they govern. Mistakes cascade in this system, as they did in Flint. Someone fails at his job and a cover-up ensues. It happens with local police. It happens in the water department too. The stakes are different, but entirely parallel. This is how local government works in many parts of the country. When government has vast numbers of independent layers, oversight gets lax. We can't expect many normal people to care about politics much at all, let alone to provide citizen oversight of the local water district. Ratepayers, like renters, are typically less organized than other interest groups, such as homeowners and municipal employees, at the local level. When the balance of power tips away from the consumers and toward the municipal employees, bad things happen, be they pension splurges for city employees or an out-of-control rail operations center. Disasters like this happen when oversight breaks down. It ends up nobody's job to look out for the interests of the people consuming the water that the cities are providing. It's a political-economy disaster waiting to fall apart. And Flint is one city. There are tens of thousands of sub-state governments in America. A similar political economy is in play in nearly every one of them. How many of these boards' governing issues, from schools to zoning, are having the same thing happen, except in their case, it's not as obvious as water coming out of the faucet brown? What does a board of interior designers do? How does that serve the public interest? [adrotate group="8"] That's the most mundane of them. There, the losses are sartorial. We overvalue the interests of the people working in fields from train operation to interior design, and undervalue the people who consume these services. The monopolies are acting like, well, monopolies. What Flint showed is the shoddy state of these monopolies. Big, fancy infrastructure requires maintenance to keep up, no matter if it's the Mosul Dam or the pipes underneath Flint. If you don't take care of it, if you don't save in advance to replace it when its working life is done, things eventually break down. If you blow your money on too-high staff salaries, or under-trained staff mess up and cause costly damage or cause delays, then the money won't be there to pay for the upkeep needed to keep it all working. Infrastructure money isn't free, and somebody must pay, be they taxpayers, ratepayers, or, in some cases, bondholders. The disaster in Flint was a preventable tragedy. It serves as a warning about what can happen when the people running our utilities have nobody looking over their shoulder. Is there a solution to this? I sure don't know. Making people care about obscure parts of government is hard, and ratepayers have long been a nightmare to organize at any scale. We can only hope it doesn't take the poisoning of the residents of another city for the tide to turn in favor of radical reforms to municipal government. It simply cannot go on this way much longer.