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Making a Murderer, Steven Avery, and Vigilante Journalism

Categories: Drew Whitcup, ZiR


downloadThe documentary series Making a Murderer, currently airing on Netflix, is generating a lot of reaction from viewers and commentators. Many people (including hundreds of thousands who have signed a petition) are clamoring for the release of the show’s central figure, convicted murderer Steven Avery. Avery was falsely accused and convicted of an assault in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin in 1984. After being exonerated and released, he was in the process of suing the Manitowoc Sheriff’s office when he was accused of the murder of young Theresa Halbach and re-arrested. The series examines his trial and conviction for that murder, as well as the trial and conviction of his nephew and co-defendant Brendan Dassey. In her recent piece for the New Yorker, Kathryn Shulz examines the effect the series has had on its viewers, and on their notion of justice:

[Show creators Laura] Ricciardi and [Moira] Demos examine those convictions in ‘Making a Murderer,’ and the information they present has led viewers to respond with near-universal outrage about the verdicts. Because of the pending civil litigation, the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department was supposed to have nothing to do with the Halbach investigation beyond lending any necessary equipment to the jurisdiction in charge. Yet members of the department were involved in the case at every critical juncture. One of them was allegedly left alone with Halbach’s vehicle for several hours after it was located and before Avery’s blood was discovered inside. Another found the key to Halbach’s S.U.V. in Avery’s home—in plain view, even though the property had previously been searched by other investigators six times. A third found a bullet fragment in Avery’s garage, again after the premises had been repeatedly searched. The analyst who identified Halbach’s DNA on that bullet had been instructed by a county detective to try to come up with evidence that Halbach had been in Avery’s house or garage. Perhaps most damning, the defense discovered that a vial of Avery’s blood, on file from the 1985 case, had been tampered with; the outer and inner seal on the box in which it was kept had been broken, and the vial itself had a puncture in the top, as from a hypodermic needle.

That is sobering stuff, but the most egregious misconduct shown in the documentary concerns not Avery but his nephew, Brendan Dassey—a stone-quiet, profoundly naïve, learning-disabled teen-ager with no prior criminal record, who is interrogated four times without his lawyer present. In the course of those interrogations, the boy, who earlier claimed to have no knowledge of Halbach, gradually describes an increasingly lurid torture scene that culminates in her murder by gunshot. The gun comes up only after investigators prod Dassey to describe what happened to Halbach’s head. Dassey first proposes that Avery cut off her hair, and then adds that his uncle punched her. Finally, one of the investigators, growing impatient, says, ‘I’m just going to come out and ask you: Who shot her in the head?’ After the confession is signed, the prosecutor calls a press conference and turns Dassey’s story into the definitive account of what happened—a travesty of justice for Dassey and Avery, given the questionable nature of the interrogation, and a terrible cruelty to the Halbach family.

Notwithstanding the troubling nature of the investigation, Shulz notes that the show’s creators left a lot of evidence out of their presentation, arguably in an effort to sway viewers:

[T]he documentary consistently leads its viewers to the conclusion that Avery was framed by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, and it contains striking elisions that bolster that theory. The filmmakers minimize or leave out many aspects of Avery’s less than savory past, including multiple alleged incidents of physical and sexual violence. They also omit important evidence against him, including the fact that Brendan Dassey confessed to helping Avery move Halbach’s S.U.V. into his junk yard, where Avery lifted the hood and removed the battery cable. Investigators subsequently found DNA from Avery’s perspiration on the hood latch—evidence that would be nearly impossible to plant.

It is this unevenness that interests Shulz. To her, a “true crime” series (or film, or book, or article) should ask questions, not answer them at the outset and then attempt to confirm that answer:

‘Making a Murderer’ raises serious and credible allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct in the trials of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. It also implies that that misconduct was malicious. That could be true; vindictive prosecutions have happened in our justice system before and they will happen again. But the vast majority of misconduct by law enforcement is motivated not by spite but by the belief that the end justifies the means—that it is fine to play fast and loose with the facts if doing so will put a dangerous criminal behind bars.

That same reasoning, with the opposite aims, seems to govern ‘Making a Murderer.’ But while people nearly always think that they are on the side of the angels, what finally matters is that they act that way. The point of being scrupulous about your means is to help insure accurate ends, whether you are trying to convict a man or exonerate him. Ricciardi and Demos instead stack the deck to support their case for Avery, and, as a result, wind up mirroring the entity that they are trying to discredit.

Having watched the series myself, and having come away instantly with the feeling that a grave injustice had been perpetrated both against Steven Avery and (especially) against Brendan Dassey, Shulz’s piece nevertheless gives me pause. Did Making a Murderer present its viewers with all relevant facts? Were my takeaways the product of a harrowing reality come to light, or just good editing? Criminal cases are, by careful design, meant to end in either certainty or uncertainty as to the defendant’s guilt. Deciding that a person is definitely innocent is not— and need not be— part of the equation. Ricciardi and Demos’ attempt to push beyond mere doubt may have come at the expense of their credibility.

— Drew Whitcup, Zeteo Contributing Writer

 

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1 Comment to “Making a Murderer, Steven Avery, and Vigilante Journalism”

  1. Daniel D'Arezzo says:

    After the hatchet-job Kathryn Schulz did on Thoreau in The New Yorker, I don’t find her credible. She assumes the role of iconoclast and litigates against her subjects. Schulz accuses the filmmakers, like the prosecutors of Avery and Dassey, of being selective in the evidence they present, but Schulz did the same thing when she put Thoreau on trial for “hypocrisy.” I have not seen “The Making of a Murderer” nor did I read Schulz’s article, but I would caution anyone about taking this writer at her word.

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