Column: Are we making too much of ‘Making a Murderer’?
If you haven’t fallen down the rabbit hole of “Making a Murderer,” the 10-part, true-crime Netflix binge-athon that has spawned petitions for a retrial or presidential pardons as well as endless dinner party chatter, allow me to give you a gentle shove.
In 1986, a Wisconsin man named Steven Avery was sentenced to 32 years in prison for violent sexual assault. Eighteen years later, he was exonerated and released based on new DNA evidence. He filed a $36-million suit against local law enforcement. Less than two years into his freedom, however, Avery was charged with the rape and murder of 25-year-old Teresa Halbach. With limited physical evidence, the prosecution based its case largely on the grisly testimony of Avery’s cognitively delayed teenage nephew, Brendan Dassey. Both were convicted. Avery received a life sentence without possibility of parole and Dassey, a life sentence with a chance of parole after 41 years.
As engaged and enraged as we are, it doesn’t change the fact that we watched a multipart movie, not the trial itself.
Starting from the time of the murder charge, two filmmakers followed the case for 10 years, shooting and collecting the footage that would become “Making a Murderer.” It shows a judicial system making a mockery of due process and a law enforcement team that is incompetent at best and corrupt at worst.
The defense’s position was that the Manitowoc, Wis., police and sheriff’s departments framed Avery for the murder, maybe because he was suing them or maybe because the Avery family had its share of troublemakers and was generally disliked.
There’s much more to tell, and that’s part of the problem with the rabid public response to “Making a Murderer.” Even in 10 hours, the filmmakers can’t possibly include every relevant detail. Unsurprisingly, some on the prosecution team have derided the project as advocacy rather than journalism and said key details were omitted. (The filmmakers say they invited members of the prosecution to be interviewed but were turned down.)
Nonetheless, countless viewers are now convinced that they know, if not the whole truth, enough of it to light up the Internet with armchair sleuthing and comments on lead prosecutor Ken Kratz’s Yelp page along the lines of “I hope that you get an incurable STD and spend the rest of your short life in constant misery, you fat slob.”
Meanwhile, Avery’s defense attorneys, Dean Strang and Jerome Buting, have been turned into national heroes. Fans are calling them modern-day Atticus Finches (the Atticus we thought we knew until “Go Set a Watchman”) and gushing over their courtroom skills and their understated charisma. A photo of the two men surrounded by hearts and girlish scribbles has been retweeted hundreds of times. (Keep in mind, these are two middle-aged guys from Wisconsin.)
All of this clamor tells us more than we want to know about wasting time on the Internet. But it tells us nothing at all about who killed Halbach or whether authorities tampered with evidence and coerced testimony. Instead, the buzz illustrates the power of a compelling narrative, along with the importance of knowing your audience.
If it seems to you that “Steven Avery” is suddenly a household name, it’s probably because you’re part of that audience. We’re talking about households that can afford Netflix subscriptions and are composed of people willing and able to sit through hours of relatively complicated legal proceedings. People like that — I know because I’m one of them — tend to take pride in their critical thinking skills and their opinions. People like that think that whether or not Avery is guilty, there clearly wasn’t enough evidence to send him, much less Dassey, to prison.
As engaged and enraged as we are, it doesn’t change the fact that we watched a multipart movie, not the trial itself. I’m not saying the filmmakers’ cut isn’t trustable — the reporting looks to be solid — but it’s still not the whole story.
Toward the end of the film, Strang talks about the “tragic lack of humility” and “unwarranted certitude” of official investigators who devoutly believe they’re right. He might as well be talking about the massive public jury that’s now deliberating the Avery case online. In an interview about “Making a Murderer,” Strang said that the positive attention he’s getting now is no more representative of the truth than the “how can you defend a killer?” criticism he received when he was trying the case.
“Both of those experiences are artificial and distorting,” Strang said. “Neither of them represent any particular reality other than what’s going on in fevered social media at the moment among a self-selected portion of the population.”
That’s good to keep in mind. The social media self-selected may be on to something this time, but we, too, could stand some humility. That said, the petition requesting presidential pardons hit the 100,000 signature mark Wednesday, which means the White House must respond.
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