“Making a Murderer”
Netflix’s new documentary series “Making a Murderer” is a complete goddamn horror show, and for more reasons than one. Filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi worked on this project for a decade, long before Netflix was crowned ruler of the free world, and their tireless patience pays extreme dividends when it comes to the sheer amount of information and access they were able to obtain. The 10-episode series has the capacity to engross, shock, and depress viewers in equal measure. This is no small feat today, and as the story unfolds it becomes painfully clear that sometimes the old “stranger than fiction” adage turns out to be true.
“Making a Murder” is the story of a Wisconsin man named Steven Avery, a poor roughneck from a family loaded with them. While he’d been in trouble before, there didn’t seem to be any reason to believe the then-23-year-old Avery was capable of the rape charges he was suddenly hit with in 1985. Despite no real evidence and a jaw-dropping amount of suggestion and projection on the part of local law enforcement, Avery was convicted of that crime and sentenced to 32 years in prison as a result. Fast forward to 18 years later, when newly available DNA evidence clears Avery with astounding clarity and pegs a known sexual criminal for the crime. Avery is released from prison and becomes a poster child for the wrongly convicted; he even stands to potentially receive millions from the government for their colossal mistake.
Things seem to be looking up for Avery by 2005. He’s a free man, he works at his family’s salvage yard, he’s headed for greener pastures financially, and he’s engaged to be married. All of this is upended in a hurry when a 25-year-old woman named Teresa Halbach goes missing. Turns out Halbach is a photographer for Auto Trader, and her last known whereabouts involve her taking photos of a vehicle at–you guessed it–Avery Auto Salvage. After a search party happens upon Halbach’s Toyota RAV4 on Steven’s property, the man who was wrongfully jailed for half his life once again finds himself under arrest, this time for a murder that would send him back behind bars for the rest of his life.
The details of the case are often bizarre. Demos and Ricciardi have endless amounts of interviews and court footage, and the details provided within are fascinating and confounding. Is Steven Avery a murderer? Is he being framed by the police? There is plenty of evidence for the state to use, there are sketchy testimonies by Avery’s nephews Brendan and Bobby, and there is damning proof that at least some level of police framing took place to make Avery look bad. I won’t go into detail here because I’m not in the business of spoilers when writing a strict review, but the array of emotions this series hits its viewers with is a wide one.
Right up front we know that Avery has a history involving very questionable decisions and even animal abuse. We also get a sense that certain police officers and state prosecutor Ken Kratz are downright corrupt; Avery’s cousin’s involvement with an officer back in ’85 seems to have been a key reason why he was locked up for the crime he certainly didn’t commit. The graphic statement given by Brendan in an early episode is later recanted, and it came from a 16-year-old with an IQ south of 70 after extreme police coercion in the first place. If this series happened to be fictional, it would be unbelievable how many unreliable narrators were in play at the same time.
As fascinating as “Making a Murderer” is from a pure story standpoint (and it absolutely is), the underlying point being made here is that the United States justice system is a complete mess. The trials of both Steven and another family member in relation to Halbach’s murder are pretty much a joke, as is much of the evidence given to the juries. Both trials are followed to completion in the series, so don’t worry about being left hanging. That said, you’d be hard-pressed to reach the end of the final episode and believe you had a concrete idea of what happened on October 31, 2005.
“Making a Murderer” is only a couple of weeks old in the public eye, and there are already questions about what evidence wasn’t presented in the show. Was information purposefully left out to lead the viewer to believe Avery’s innocence? After conducting the requisite research that probably everyone who happened upon this show has done within three seconds of finishing it, I did find information that makes Avery look worse, but I also don’t believe any of it is necessarily damning. Between everything depicted across the series’ 10 episodes and an hour of persistent Googling, I came away with all sorts of, speaking legally, reasonable doubt on both sides.
Did the police plant evidence to ensure the legal guilt of Steven Avery? I don’t think any impartial human being could deny that they did. Was this done because the state knew that Steven Avery murdered Teresa Halbach and didn’t want him to walk, or was it done because local law enforcement looked like a complete joke in the face of Avery’s initial wrongful conviction? This is a slippery slope, as the show points out, because it could easily imply that the police committed a murder to put Avery away and re-sully his name.
I’m all for getting the right guy in a crime, but tampering with a case presents a much larger problem. We need to be able to trust that our government and the people tasked with enforcing our laws have our best interest in mind, and “innocent until proven guilty” actually means something. If we want to be proud of our country and feel safe within its borders, one thing we absolutely need is for due process to truly exist. No matter what you think of Steven Avery or other parties presented, chances are you’ll be flummoxed by how the events of “Making a Murderer” play out. You might even yell at your TV screen, wondering aloud how any of this was deemed acceptable. Honestly, it’s kind of terrifying.