2015 was a good year for long-form documentaries about criminal justice, from the smashing success of the Serial podcast to HBO’s crime solving (?) The Jinx. But the cream of the crop has to be the Netflix series Making a Murderer. That’s partly because it’s infinitely bingeable, where the others weren’t, but that’s also because it’s got a hell of a story to tell
The story, writ broadly (it’s over 10 hours long, after all) is this – In 1985 Steven Avery is convicted of attempted rape in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. He maintained his innocence and, 18 years later, DNA proved him right (while identifying the real culprit to boot). Released from prison, Avery became a shining star in the exoneration world, a poster boy for needed reforms of the criminal justice system. Then, just when changes were about to be made, he was charged and convicted of an even more heinous crime – murder. As in 1985, Avery maintains his innocence, but so far, hasn’t been able to prove it.
But wait, there’s more. There’s a back story involving Avery’s relationship with the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office. It was responsible for putting him away in 1985, ignoring evidence pointing to the real perpetrator in the process. It ignored signs in the mid 1990s that suggested Avery was innocent. And, most important, the office and several of its officers were being deposed as part of a lawsuit about Avery’s conviction at the time the murder victim, Teresa Halbach, went missing.
Thus, rather than telling a story about how a man who was wrongly imprisoned for two decades might have been turned into a killer, the film makers (with a generous assist from Avery’s lawyers) instead tell a tale of a man who wrongfully convicted twice. The first time, via more negligence than malice, but the second time by a deliberate frame up.
There’s also the story of Brendan Dassey, Avery’s slow-witted teenage cousin, who was also convicted of participating in Halbach’s murder. The entire case against Dassey consisted of a “confession” given by Dassey that’s almost a paradigmatic example of how skilled interrogators can get the answers they want, regardless of how truthful they really are. The overriding sense at the end of things is that Brendan, at the very least, had nothing to do with the murder.
I’m not sure they can make the case that Avery was framed. But what the Making a Murderer does is to highlight a lot of troubling issues in the criminal justice system. They’re not things that are new to those of us who work there every day, but they’ll shock some lay people. At least I hope they do.
The first thing that pops up is investigative and prosecutorial tunnel vision. That is, once cops know they have the “right guy,” they focus entirely on convicting him, regardless of evidence that might point to another suspect. Case closed, stat achieved! That’s most obvious in those in the system who, even after DNA cleared Avery, refused to concede they’d gotten the wrong man. This is fairly common in exoneration cases. People are so wedded to the position that they were right that they can’t accept they were wrong. Confirmation bias can be a real monkey on one’s back.
Next there’s the way that the prosecutorial apparatus protects itself from accusations of wrongdoing. To its credit, the Wisconsin AG’s office did an investigation of Avery’s 1985 case after his exoneration. The investigators who were deposed in Avery’s civil case said some pretty damaging things, mostly about the kind of tunnel vision I mentioned above. The final report, however, was a whitewash, which is par for the course. Misbehaving prosecutors are rarely punished, or even called out by name when courts find they’ve misbehaved.
Brendan’s story combines two current tropes of criminal defense, a coerced confession and horrific defense lawyering. We see some of Brendan’s taped interview with police, but we also hear lots of phone calls with his mother while he was in jail. The upshot of all this is that he had no idea what he was doing, was trying to please the officers, and almost certainly didn’t have the role in the murder he ascribed to himself (if he had any at all). Again, this isn’t unusual – while all cases of DNA exoneration have a false confession rate somewhere around 20 percent, for juveniles that goes up to over 40 percent. Let that sink in for a moment – in almost half of juvenile exoneration cases, the juvenile confessed to a crime he didn’t commit.
What’s worse in Brendan’s case is that one of the his false confessions was obtained by his defense team! His second appointed lawyer declared his client guilty before he even met him and apparently was trying to make him the best guilty pleader and cooperator he could. That backfired, spectacularly, giving the prosecution extra ammunition to use against him at trial. You’ve heard of lawyers who are asleep during their client’s case? Maybe, sometimes, that’s the lesser of two evils.
Of course, to hear the prosecution tell it, there is no such thing as a “false” confession. During the closing argument in Brendan’s case the prosecutor told the jury that “innocent people don’t confess to crimes they didn’t commit.” As the numbers laid out above show, that’s clearly false. While a lay person might be forgiven for thinking that, a lawyer in the 21st century shouldn’t. If the prosecutor wasn’t outright lying, he was so out of touch with current research on false confessions that he should have his license pulled.
Avery’s trial had a whopper from the prosecutor in closing argument, too, in the form of the declaration that “the presumption of innocence applies to the innocent.” That’s wrong on a couple of levels. Theoretically, of course, everyone – innocent, guilty, and in between – is entitled to a presumption of innocence. It’s the prosecution’s job to rebut that. If it can’t, the defendant goes free – regardless of whether, factually, he’s guilty or not.
But he’s also wrong practically, for a very different reason. That’s because, practically (in my experience), there is no presumption of innocence. It’s a myth people buy into to make themselves feel better about how the world works, like Santa Claus or God. In truth, lots of people think if you’re charged with something, you must be guilty of something. Judges can instruct jurors otherwise, but it’s a hard bias to crack.
Speaking of bias, I certainly have one that I bring to Making a Murderer. Being a criminal defense lawyer for 16-plus years will do that. And make no mistake, the filmmakers have a viewpoint and are making an argument. This is not an even, balanced, tell all sides documentary. It’s a polemic, meant to stir passions. Whether it succeeds in convincing that Avery is the unluckiest man on the planet, being wrongfully convicted for two separate crimes, is unclear. But if it riles people up enough to pay attention to the issues the case raises, that’s good enough for me.