“Making a Murderer” a manipulative yet compelling indictment of failed justice
Every town has that family. They are the family that seems to live in a self-inflicted poverty of ruin and rust, of ignorance and ignobility, of disagreeable temper and distrust. They are the family that has too many children and an excessive number of cousins and distant relations, and lacks the resources to manage any of them.
Southern literature is full of these characters: the Ewells of Maycomb, the Snopeses of Yoknapatawpha, the Slatterys of Clayton County. They are the poor white trash, victims of their own responses, destined through poor decisions to lives of destitution.
Like most of the poor in America, this class of people has an uneasy relationship with law enforcement, often due to the survival mentality necessary to exist on the fringes of society. This ultimately leads to a prejudicial attitude toward members of these families that manifests itself in the belief that anyone with a certain last name is capable of the worst crimes imaginable.
There is an unequivocal disparity in the way law enforcement deals with people belonging to these families and the way it deals with everyone else, for reasons that should be easily understandable.
However, in a country where justice demands the presumption of innocence and equality in the eyes of the law, such prejudices are unconscionable.
The Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer” puts this idea on display in gripping and heartbreaking detail, showing the glaring holes that exist in our current justice system.
Steven Avery was convicted of a violent rape in 1985 by the state of Wisconsin on largely circumstantial evidence found by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department. Eighteen years later, Avery’s conviction was overturned due to new DNA evidence that pointed to the real rapist. Avery was freed and began a $36 million lawsuit against Manitowoc County.
Then, shortly after the lawsuit began, Avery was again arrested, this time for the rape and murder of Theresa Halbach. These are the facts in their simplest terms, but there is much more to the story. The 10-episode documentary series guides viewers through the twists and turns of apparent and glaring police and prosecutorial misconduct.
It is easy for the conspiracy-minded to connect the dots between missing or inconclusive evidence, coerced confessions and cavalier certainty in the face of dubious conclusions found in the case against Steven Avery and his nephew, Brenden Dassy. The series is most certainly skewed toward the Avery family, proprietors of a vast salvage yard in upper Wisconsin.
The documentary slowly and methodically lays out the case that the Manitowoc Sheriff’s department planted evidence against Steven Avery in an effort to avoid an expensive settlement and win yet another battle against the outsiders that do not fit into their small community. The series is compelling and, many times, infuriating.
Of particular note is the repeated questioning of Brenden Dassy, when two detectives essentially force a 16-year-old child with a verbal IQ of 69 to admit to being an accomplice to the heinous crime in graphic, uncomfortable detail.
The filmmakers tell the story through phone calls, police recordings, interviews and trial footage. These are carefully selected to elicit extreme emotional responses from the audience—it is clear that the filmmakers are hoping to manipulate the audience into believing as they do.
But even though these manipulations are obvious, the evidence presented against Manitowoc County and the State is damning enough to show there was likely a gross miscarriage of justice in this case. Steven Avery and Brenden Dassy probably deserve a new trial, at the very least.
More than this, however, the documentary drags the role of the media and the court of public opinion screaming into the light, demanding that the audience confront just how unfair our justice system can be.
The innocence or guilt of Steven Avery is left to the opinion of the viewers. Reddit already has its internet sleuths on the case with wild theories about possible suspects and conspiracies. “Making a Murderer” serves to reopen the wounds of the Halbach family and thrust Manitowoc County back into the spotlight in ways I’m sure the people who live there would rather not see.
Whether or not this will mean anything for the two men accused of the crime remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that justice is not easy.