IF YOU HAVE A PULSE and an internet connection, you’ve heard of the hit podcast Serial, and the hit Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer. You’ve also probably heard about the activist networks that have grown around both of these shows. Serial spawned multiple spin-off podcasts, including one orchestrated by Adnan Syed’s (the man convicted of the killing that was the subject of season one) defense team, and one, called “The Serial Serial,” which is basically just a water cooler “let’s talk about what happened this week on Serial” podcast.
For Making a Murderer, the response has been similar: SubReddits featuring a lot of amateur sleuthing, and petitions galore: petitions to free the possibly-wrongly-convicted Steven Avery, petitions to free his self-incriminating, possibly-mentally-handicapped nephew Brendan Dassey, petitions to get the Governor of Wisconsin to pardon them, petitions to get President Obama to pardon them (which President Obama can’t legally do in state matters), and petitions to get the Wisconsin Supreme Court to accept his appeal.
The public response to true-crime documentaries such as these has been truly overwhelming. But all of the anger and all of the activism has frequently been profoundly misguided.
I know there are plenty of people on the internet who fully believe that Steve Avery was framed, or that Adnan Syed was innocent and was a victim of a negligent defense lawyer and a lying witness, but neither man’s innocence was proven in their respective show. Unlike Robert Durst in HBO’s The Jinx, which ended with Durst’s bathroom confession, “I killed ‘em all!” there was no such closure in either show.
After the fact, plenty of evidence has been released that seems to point towards Avery’s guilt. Avery’s ex-fiancee has since said she believes Avery is guilty, and that he frequently threatened to kill her as well. Even Dean Strang, the insanely likable nerdy defense lawyer from Making a Murderer has expressed some doubt about Avery’s innocence at the end: “Could he be guilty?” Strang said in an interview with The Daily Beast, “Sure, he could. Do I think he was proven guilty? No. Do I think there’s a real strong chance he could be innocent? Yes. But that’s just me. I wasn’t asked to decide.”
For Syed, a source as respected as Glenn Greenwald’s The Intercept cast doubts on the possibility of Syed’s innocence, and even Sarah Koenig and Dana Chivvis, the narrator and producer of the show, respectively, said they weren’t sure: “You just have to think ‘God, that is—you had so many terrible coincidences that day,” Chivvis said in the final episode. “There were so many, ‘You had such bad luck that day, Adnan.’”
Most people I hang out with have expressed a similar ambivalence about the two shows: “Am I sure he did it? No, but it doesn’t seem like he should have been convicted,” seems to be more or less the popular sentiment. What people are certain about is not the innocence of either of these men, but rather that something in our justice system went wrong in their convictions.
Which is why it’s so confusing that the responses to these shows have been widespread calls for the release of these two men. There’s a much more serious problem at hand here that deserves our attention.
The American justice system, it should be said, works pretty well when everyone involved is acting in good faith. When the prosecutors aren’t being sleazy, when the investigators aren’t bullying witnesses into confessions, when the police are being trustworthy, when the public defenders aren’t in a rush, when the judges are being fair, when the media isn’t poisoning the public against a defendant, and when the jury is following the gold standard of presumption of innocence, it’s pretty hard to get a wrongful conviction and a miscarriage of justice.
But what Serial and Making a Murderer both excel at showing is that it’s very possible for one or more of these components of the system to fail. In Syed’s case, it was as simple as having an overworked, in-debt, physically unhealthy defense attorney. In Making a Murderer, there were even more failings on the part of the justice system: the police, first and foremost, were (at best) behaving sketchily in their collection of evidence. Secondly, the investigators manipulated a mentally-handicapped teenage boy into a confession that may well have been stolen from the movie Kiss the Girls. Then the prosecutor gave, in gory detail, this confession to the media prior to the start of the trial, making it extremely difficult for this very well-publicized case to get an unbiased jury.
Brendan Dassey, Steven Avery’s co-defendant, was even shorter on luck because his family wasn’t able to afford an attorney, and thus had to resort to a public defender. His first public defender actually pushed Dassey to incriminate himself and seek a plea bargain. This, incidentally, is not unusual: according to the US Department of Justice, 73% of public defenders exceed the recommended number of cases to take on each year. In Washington State, it was revealed that public defenders often work less than an hour on a given case, and in Florida in 2009, the average annual public defender caseload was 500 felonies and 2,225 misdemeanors. And public defense programs are incredibly underfunded: for every $14 spent on policing, a single dollar is spent on public defense. The result is that 90 to 95% of all criminal cases end in plea bargaining. A good chunk of those plea bargains, of course, are the result of the defendant being guilty, but an overworked public defender is not likely to put all of their time and energy into a case if they have hundreds of other cases they are working on. It might, understandably, become tempting to push their clients to pursue a plea bargain.
None of these failings of the justice system mean that either of these men are innocent. It does, however, mean that the justice system can be wrong. And this is a very disturbing thing to hear: one of the most important elements in living in a civilized society is the presence of a basic, trustworthy justice system. It underlies everything we do: the trust that our police are here to protect us and are not working against us. The belief that, if something does happen, the courts will work to make sure justice is done so that it does not fall into the hands of the mob. The belief that, if we are accused but are innocent, that we will receive the benefit of the doubt and won’t be wrongfully incarcerated. And that access to this system is not contingent on our race or income.
But as these two documentaries point out, the system isn’t always deserving of our trust. (Neither of these cases, by the way, ever focused on the systemic racism in the justice system, which is probably the biggest cause of the erosion of trust between the forces of law and order and the general public.)
When we can’t trust our most basic institutions, we can’t trust our society as a whole.
Fortunately, Making a Murderer and Serial are canaries in the coal mine, not the actual explosion of the coal mine. There’s still a lot that’s right with the American justice system, and there are still a lot of good people working in it. But unless we pay attention to the growing systemic flaws and the possibility for misconduct in our justice system, the mine is, someday, going to blow.
The response then, should be less on freeing Avery and Syed, and more on fixing a system that could create even more of them in the future. Not every wrongly accused person gets a documentary: 337 people have been exonerated across the country thanks to DNA evidence (like Avery in his first case) since 1989, and there are undoubtedly innocents in jail at this very moment.
If your interest lies in freeing the wrongfully convicted, you can give to the Innocence Project, which works on the behalf of the wrongfully convicted around the country.
If your interest lies in protecting the civil liberties of all Americans, the best organization to give to is the American Civil Liberties Union. They represent all races, all political leanings, and all classes. You can give to them here.
If your interest lies in reducing mass incarceration and building a more just justice system, check out the Brennan Justice Center, an NYU-based advocacy group and think tank that is fighting the good fight.
Finally, if you’re interested in creating a better society, start with your neighborhood. Get to know your local police, and hold them to a high standard — police are more effective when they have relationships with the citizens they’re working for. Then, tell your elected officials you want to end mass incarceration, overly-harsh sentencing, and racism in the criminal justice system.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Syed’s attorney was a public defender. She had previously worked in public defense, but at the time of Syed’s trial was in private practice and had been retained by Syed’s family.
Steven Avery is the subject of Making a Murderer. Netflix
In nearly every interview they've given since the launch of their Netflix true crime sensation Making a Murderer, directors Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi have struck the same note.
They didn't go into the project seeking to exonerate Steven Avery, they say. They have no opinion as to whether or not he killed Teresa Halbach, they say. Their aim is to highlight problems with the US legal system that should give pause even to those who come away from the 10-part documentary believing Avery really did commit the crime for which he is currently imprisoned, they say. The question is not one of guilt or innocence — it's one of prosecutor misconduct and horrible mistreatment of the accused, they say.
You can believe or not believe Demos and Ricciardi as you will. (I think they perhaps protest too much, as this New Yorker piece about the documentary, written by Kathryn Schultz, would suggest.) But what's inescapable is that all the stuff they wanted to talk about really is in the film. It's right there, for viewers to latch onto. So why has it been largely ignored in favor of the latest examination of "did he or didn't he commit the crime?" The answer is simple: because of how the material was presented.
Robert Durst, as featured in HBO's The Jinx. HBO
The easiest way to think about the collective response to Making a Murderer is to look back at another true crime documentary sensation released in 2015: HBO's The Jinx.
That project, too, faced criticism that it was too in-the-pocket of its subject, accused murderer Robert Durst (or rather, it did until footage from the project appeared to show Durst confessing to those murders). That project, too, provoked a massive discussion of how true crime documentaries work. And that project, too, caused frequent debates over the fairness of the criminal justice system. It even spurred its own post-airing controversy, about what director Andrew Jarecki knew about the explosive "confession" footage and when.
Yet few viewers left The Jinx unaware of any of the above. Jarecki didn't have to spend interview after interview speaking to his true intent, and it's not as if he packed The Jinx with lots of moments where, say, interview subjects patiently explained that Durst's status as a very rich man meant he could afford better legal representation. He trusted the audience to be able to keep up — just as Demos and Ricciardi apparently did.
Some of the reason for this is that Jarecki is just a better, more experienced filmmaker than Demos and Ricciardi. He'd almost have to be, he's made more films than they have. He also had a larger budget, which shows. The Jinx is filled with artfully staged reenactments and beautifully lit interview scenes. Making a Murderer is mostly composed of flatly shot courtroom footage. That it's so compelling in spite of its lack of visual depth is a testament to Demos and Ricciardi's skill in and of itself.
The major difference between the two projects is this: The Jinx was presented on a week-to-week basis, Making a Murderer was presented in one big gulp. The former allowed for plenty of time between episodes to tease out the themes Jarecki and company were pursuing. The latter hung its material on the framework that was most immediately compelling: the question of Avery's guilt or innocence.
Brody (Damian Lewis) and Carrie (Claire Danes) explored their relationship in the famously bumpy second season of Homeland. Showtime
The effect that binge-watching can have on viewers' response to a TV show is something I first noticed back during the second season of Showtime's Homeland. When it aired, the season was roundly derided for its ludicrous plot twists and bizarre emotional logic, with viewers laughing over, say, a pacemaker being hacked via the internet. What had happened to the sinuous espionage series of season one?
Yet I found that viewers who watched Homeland's second season on DVD or on demand had an almost uniformly different experience. In that format, the weird, gonzo plot twists that caused so many weekly viewers to throw up their hands in frustration were reduced from a series of jarring potholes to a bunch of minor bumps in the road.
When watching the season all at once, it was much easier to key into the season's biggest swings and broadest strokes. Who cared if some of the smaller moments didn't entirely work? For binge viewers, the big picture was still a success.
I've observed this phenomenon time and again, with numerous shows: Viewers' response to a series as it airs week to week is vastly different (and more critical) from the one it receives when it makes its way to DVD or streaming.
Binge-watching, simply put, wears down our critical faculties. It tends to reduce a series to its most obvious elements, setting aside the considerations of theme or meaning in favor of the most surface-level plot and character stuff. It, in other words, flattens a show.
This is not to say you can't perform a critical assessment after a binge-watch — if it did, it would mean I was lying every time I reviewed a TV show after bingeing it. But it does mean that the binge can cause the onset of a sort of vegetative state, where the next episode is always there to welcome you after the previous one ends, and it's all the easier to just keep going.
As I argued in 2015, Netflix itself is inventing a new sort of art form, where the length of the story being told is novel, yes, but so is the way in which it's assumed you'll consume it — all at once, in a big pile. This reduces each episode to just another unit, mostly there to mark a natural stopping point rather than anything else. And, indeed, as Netflix's Ted Sarandos told me when I interviewed him for that piece, the streaming service increasingly thinks of its seasons as big, long episodes, a marked change from how TV has traditionally been produced.
Laura Ricciardi (left) and Moira Demos (right), during filming of Making a Murderer. Netflix
All of this brings us back to Making a Murderer, which wanted to be about one thing but ended up, in the minds of its many fans (as well as many members of the media), mostly being about whether Avery deserves to be in prison.
The numerous other themes that Demos and Ricciardi have talked about — the criticism of media coverage of Avery's case and trial, the examination of prosecution tactics to influence juries, the deep dive into small-town prejudices, the consideration of class in the American judicial system — are all present in the documentary. But they're much easier to miss (or ignore) when you watch all 10 episodes in a weekend (or less).
If Making a Murderer had been released on a weekly basis, with the discussion proceeding more slowly than it did under the Netflix model, it would have been easier to tease out all these things in the conversations that sprung up around the show. When consumed all at once over the holiday break, it necessarily became all about Avery and whether he committed the crime.
The binge-watch demands resolution, requires getting to an endpoint. Thus, in cases where the story doesn't have an endpoint, viewers are left to seek answers on their own. My guess is that Demos and Ricciardi concluded Making a Murderer on a point of irresolution both because releasing their film was the best way to reopen Avery's trial (by spurring public demands to do so) and because irresolution would hopefully make us think about what we'd just watched and about what Avery had to endure in the legal system. Instead, it just made us debate one question endlessly, over and over.
I don't want to exonerate Demos and Ricciardi entirely. They did choose this particular person as their subject, and they did create a movie that neatly elides a few of the more unsavory aspects of Avery's past. It's not hard to watch Making a Murderer and believe they had made up their minds about Avery's innocence long before they turned on their cameras. The way they created the film may ultimately end up backfiring on them, particularly as news outlets dig into Avery's crimes more and more deeply.
However, I can't help but feel a twinge of sympathy every time they walk into another interview (or take to Twitter) and repeat the same talking points they've been repeating since Making a Murderer became such a hot topic. While it's possible their statements are just a sign of lousy PR management — rote responses from which they never deviate — I suspect their answers are more indicative of bewilderment and frustration that their creation has been so thoroughly taken from them and turned into something else.
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By Kelly-Leigh Cooper
BBC News, Wisconsin
From series like Making a Murderer to podcasts like Serial - true crime seems to be everywhere these last few years.
I put my hands up and admit it - I'm an addict.
For reasons even I don't understand, crime documentaries have become my default way to unwind.
If I have friends over, I might make an embarrassed joke about my streaming suggestions - but the evidence suggests I'm not alone.
The genre's growth is inescapable. Almost every week there seems to be a new documentary released and not without controversy.
Some warn we risk glamorising notorious killers and erasing their victims with the coverage. Others have accused programme makers of being selective with evidence.
So, do victims and the communities directly affected, think our fascination with true crime is problematic?
Avery's name is the latest to join our growing circle of true crime obsessions, thanks to Netflix's newest documentary series, Making a Murderer. If you spent the holidays binge-watching the 10-part series, you're not alone—the overnight hit certainly made for some rather dark Christmas dinner conversations. If you've yet to start, we're so very jealous. But either way, we've rounded up everything you need to know about the addictive docu-series, whether you've started watching yet or not.
In some ways it's just like Serial and The Jinx—but in others it's totally different. Making a Murderer certainly belongs in the true crime genre with its predecessors, but whereas the first season of Serial was spent trying to figure out if Adnan Syed was innocent and The Jinx was spent trying to determine if Robert Durst was guilty (in boiled-down terms), Making a Murderer is much more complex: The series follows Steven Avery, who was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and spent 18 years in prison (DNA evidence eventually exonerated him). But while he pursued a $36 million lawsuit against the county for damages, Avery was arrested for the murder of Theresa Halbach, a 25-year-old photographer last seen taking pictures of a car on the Avery family property.
The documentary—and Avery's lawyers—attempt to prove that he was actually framed by the county police and authorities for the murder. Several pieces of evidence tied Avery to the death of Theresa Halbach, but his lawyers—Dean Strang and Jerry Buting—believed they were planted by the sheriff's department as retaliation for Avery's lawsuit and embarrassment of the county. Crazy, right?
Celebrities are fascinated with this story. Avery's story is crazy, and that's why it's capturing the attention of everyone and everyone—including celebs.
Hopefully by now, we've convinced you to start watching. When you're done, come back immediately and scroll through the second half of this post (and for those who have already binged, continue on!). SPOILERS AHEADKen Kratz, the special prosecutor in the Avery cases, believes the documentary was biased. "Anytime you edit 18 months' worth of information and only include the statements or pieces that support your particular conclusion, that conclusion should be reached," he told Fox 11 News. "I believe there to be 80 to 90 percent of the physical evidence, the forensic evidence, that ties Steven Avery to this murder never to have been presented in this documentary." Making a Murderer's producers say Kratz was provided the opportunity to speak with them, and that the "key pieces of the state's evidence are included in the series."
And now he's getting bad Yelp reviews as a result. The page for Kratz's law firm has become a landing page for outraged viewers, who range from calling him "corrupt, perverted, and lacking any basic inkling of humanity" to a "morally and ethically bankrupt ass clown." Yelp has stated they will begin to remove any reviews based on the documentary and not personal experience with Kratz starting on Monday.
As for Avery and his cousin Brendan Dassey, who was also convicted in the Halbach crime, they still have options. In an interview with Wisconsin's Capital Times, Avery's former attorney Dean Strang believes his chances for release are "slim—but not vanished or nonexistent." Those chances are dependent on "the heading of new evidence, which would either be someone coming forward, someone admitting something, someone revealing a secret they've been carrying that would point in another direction, or an advance in scientific testing so that the blood and the EDTA can be revisited." For Dassey, he has a lawsuit pending hoping to be granted a writ of Habeas corpus—which would force a judge to re-examine his case and potentially grant him a new trial or set him free.
If Avery didn't do it, who did? Reddit has some theories. The most compelling involves a man who rented property close to Avery Auto Salvage. He was brought into custody on November 6, 2005—less than a week after Halbach's murder—after his wife found a pair of underwear, a hammer with blood on it, and bones. He was released from custody that January.
Alright peeps, what's your theory: Is Steven Avery guilty or innocent?
If you're like the other million people who spent their holiday break glued to their television screens, binge-watching Netflix's "Making a Murderer" in utter shock and disbelief, then believe us, we know what you're going through. (If you haven't seen the series, we pity you—spoilers are basically unavoidable at this point, so you should probably call in sick and jam through all 10 episodes.)
Whether you believe Steven Avery is guilty of the murder of Teresa Halbach, we've complied six books for your "Making a Murderer" obsession, from false confessions, crooked cops, and wrongful convictions, these books should hold you off. at least until you get a chance to listen to Serial's return.
1. "THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE," by Sarah Burns
In 1989, a female jogger was brutally raped and found, near death, in Manhattan's Central Park. Five Black and Latino teenagers confessed to the crime, were tried, and convicted. But as time went on investigators realized their confessions had been coerced. Despite legal efforts, all five served their complete sentences. Sarah Burns, in this probing case of wrongful conviction, reflects the dangerous issues that plague our legal justice system, from racism to media saturation.
2. "DID THEY REALLY DO IT?," by Fred Rosen
From axe-murderer Lizzie Borden, to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, to the doctor who set John Wilkes Booth's broken ankle, author Fred Rosen explores nine of this country's most violent crimes and asks the important question: did they really do it? Using criminal records, forensics, and courtroom testimonies, Rosen argues that certain guilt is not always so cut and dry.
3. "PICKING COTTON," by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino, Ronald Cotton, and Erin Torneo
In 1984 college student Jennifer Thompson was raped at knifepoint and later identified Ronald Cotton as her attacker. He was tried and convicted. Eleven years went by before Cotton was allowed the opportunity to prove his innocence with DNA evidence. This compelling read written by the victim and the wrongfully accused themselves proves the power of forgiveness and redemption.
4. "MANIFEST INJUSTICE," by Barry Siegel
Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Barry Siegel tells the mind-boggling story of Bill Macumber who was accused of a double-homicide and served 38 years in prison before being exonerated. With incredible attention to detail and the mass oversights of the system that imprisoned Macumber, Siegel illuminates the importance of what should be the literal and moral compass of this country: "innocent until proven guilty."
5. "BUDDY BOYS: WHEN GOOD COPS TURN BAD, by Mike McAlary
Using New York City in the 1970s as his backdrop author Mike McAlary relates how a group of policemen can go from good intentions to blatant criminal behavior in "the Alamo" scandal that shook the NYPD to the core. As Making a Murderer has already shown, Buddy Boys reminds us that the brass should never be above the law.
6. "DEVIL's KNOT: THE TRUE STORY OF THE MEMPHIS THREE," by Mara Leveritt
In 2011, three men were released from prison after serving 18 years for a crime they claimed they did not commit, the murder of three eight-year-old boys. Known as "the Memphis Three," these men were alleged to be part of a Satanic cult, and were convicted on an astounding lack of physical evidence. Over the years many journalists and celebrities (even Johnny Depp) pushed for their release. Author Mara Leveritt takes a probing look into one of the most complex cases of the last 20 years.