It has been difficult to escape the ongoing debate and petitions surrounding Netflix’s latest instalment, Making a Murderer. It has created lawyers out of all of us. Our friends and family seem to know as much about the criminal justice system as we do, making studying criminal law seem futile if we can learn just as much from a ten hour Netflix binge. Yet, despite disturbing tales of police corruption, death and suspicious circumstances it was the words, “murder is hot” spoken by a Dateline NBC producer on the show that struck me. Sex might sell but murder is coming up trumps.
Making a Murderer has enthralled viewers as we intimately follow the lives of Steven Avery and his family during his plight to prove that he was wrongly convicted to 32 years imprisonment for the brutal attack of Penny Beernsten in July 1985. Avery served 18 years in prison before he was exonerated after DNA testing – a technology which was unavailable at the time of the trial – identified the true criminal, Gregory Allen. Viewers were shocked and appalled with corruption of the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department which led to Avery’s great miscarriage of justice. After his release, Avery filed a lawsuit against the county for 36 million dollars during which Avery was arrested again in 2005 – this time for the murder of Teresa Halbach, a 25 year old photographer. Sixth months later, his nephew, Brendan Dassey, was arrested after confessing to helping Avery in the sickening rape and murder of Halbach and to burning her body. In 2007, after separate trials, both Avery and Dassey were sentenced to life imprisonment; Avery was denied possibility of an early release. Now 53 years old, Avery has been in prison for 28 years of his life.
Within weeks of the series being released on Netflix, petitions circulated demanding the retrial of Avery. Internet-warriors began spinning webs of theories and even ex-FBI cold case worker, John Cameron, has spun his own theory that notorious serial killer, Edward Wayne Edwards, killed Theresa – his website on the matter blaring the words, “EDWARDS IS THE KILLER OF TERESA HLABACH AND SET-UP OF STEVEN AVERY AND BRENDAN DASSEY”. With such an intimate glance into the case, viewers are able to evaluate the evidence themselves and come up with their own verdicts. But it is too easy to succumb to the trap of these conspiracy theories. We are so accustomed to court room dramas like Law and Order in which we are lead to believe that guilt and innocence are entwined with a person’s goodness, rather than whether the facts and prosecutor display a solid case of guilt beyond reasonable doubt, such that our judgements become clouded with the portrayal and our perceptions of the defendant.
This begs the question: should we film real life trials at all? Filming in court is forbidden in the UK and the intensity of the filming of Making a Murderer makes the criminal justice system appear unnecessarily perverse in America. In Avery’s case it was not merely a televised trial but rather a gripping court room drama, we expected and even relished in the scandals and deceptions. Yet how accurately can a piece of television designed for our entertainment depict a real life case. Criticisms have been directed towards the filmmakers, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, for excluding some of the prosecution’s evidence against Avery. Their excuse being that they had to cut out some material in order to fit a six-week trial into an accessible ten hour viewing. Thus it is inevitable that some key pieces to the puzzle of the complex trial will be omitted, so how can we viewers successfully imagine ourselves in the juror’s position? Frustrated viewers have displayed a righteous sense that if they were on the jury they would have made the “right” decision to acquit Avery. Justice should be accessible but perhaps making the minute details of the trial so publicly available will lead to a loss of faith in the justice system. Perhaps it is fairer if we keep the trial behind the court room doors.
Making a Murderer has created dangerous narratives about criminal victims and devious cover ups such that it could easily be called “Making a Victim”. It treads precarious grounds as it paints Avery as the leading casualty in a tale of police corruption, yet only gives the real victim, Teresa Halbach, a mere glance. That is the innate concern with these documentaries following the lives of disturbed criminals; we become so obsessed with them that we nearly always forget about their victims. The filmmakers needed viewers and they got them by moulding Avery to conform to middle-class ideas of sympathy. Avery was painted so convincingly as victimised and innocent man that we all forgot, or dismissed, previous evidence displaying his violent character as he burned his family’s cat alive and threatened to kill his ex-wife. Documentary filmmakers display the facts, but it is unavoidable that some of their opinion and bias will rub off on the portrayal of their subjects, thus can we ever trust the picture they lead us to believe?
The documentary closed with Avery’s poignant words “When you know you’re innocent. You keep on going. The truth always comes out sooner or later” and perhaps it will. But has our obsession and sadistic enjoyment of murder deceived us? Every story needs a victim, but have we chosen the wrong one?