Six weeks after Netflix’s Making a Murderer exploded on the nation’s consciousness, the streaming documentary program continues to stir emotions and raise questions about both our nation’s justice system and the ethics of documentary film making. In our first of a monthly series describing programs we consider “worth the binge” National Road Magazine’s Jennifer Stevens lays out her reasons why you should set aside half a day (or more) and join this national conversation.Load up your Netflix queue and cancel your Valentine’s Day plans because you’ve got some work to do. If you’re not watching Making a Murderer on Netflix, you’re making a big mistake. It has all the intrigue you would expect from a true crime drama, along with enough (alleged) police misconduct and reasonable doubt to make your blood boil. The ten part documentary series follows the prosecution of Steven Avery for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach, a 25-year-old photographer. Block out at least ten hours to view the documentary and an additional five hours for all the follow up Googling that you’ll need to do after you finish watching. If you’re prone to high blood pressure, this series might not be for you.
The suspect, Steven Avery, is notable as he was wrongfully convicted for the 1985 sexual assault and attempted murder of Penny Beerntsen in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, despite having 16 people confirm his alibi for the day of the murder. The documentary suggests that the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department was instrumental in guiding Beerntsen to identify Avery as the attacker. Another criminal, Gregory Allen, had been presented as a possible suspect, but was not investigated by Manitowoc County. The police didn’t have the best relationship with the Avery family, who were considered odd by the whole community and had previous run-ins with the law. Prior to his arrest in the Beerntsen case, Avery had a nasty confrontation with the wife of a sheriff’s deputy (who also happened to be his cousin). The woman accused Avery of public indecency and he subsequently ran her off the road with his car. Avery maintained his innocence for the Beerntsen attack throughout his trial and subsequently from inside prison walls. Eighteen years later, Avery was exonerated through DNA evidence and released from prison. Gregory Allen was, indeed, a DNA match for the crime.
After his release, Avery brought a multi-million dollar lawsuit against the sheriff’s department and district attorney for misconduct during the investigation. The case was still pending when Teresa Halbach was murdered in 2005. Halbach was a photographer for Auto Trader Magazine and had an appointment to take vehicle photographs for the Avery family, who owned an auto salvage yard. The Avery property, which included several Avery family homes along with the salvage yard, was Halbach’s last known whereabouts. A search of the salvage yard uncovered Halbach’s car and later human bone fragments in a burn pit near Avery’s home. Despite the fact that the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department was legally banned from investigating the crime (see wrongful conviction above), members of that department “assisted” in the investigation and discovered key pieces of evidence in Steven Avery’s house and garage, including the key to Teresa Halbach’s car and a bullet that was allegedly involved in the crime. Ironically (or suspiciously), the discovery of the key was made after several searches of Avery’s home by other law enforcement personnel. The documentary portrays the discovery of this evidence as iffy at best and downright implausible at worst. Blood that was discovered in Halbach’s car matched Steven Avery’s DNA but prosecutor’s contended that it had been planted by police (perhaps the same police who “found” the car key in Avery’s bedroom). The defense claimed that other evidence showed indications of tampering, including the bone fragments found in the burn pit.
The documentary convinces the audience to really consider how infallible the criminal justice system is. Should the police and prosecutors always be trusted? Should interrogation techniques be evaluated? How can the criminal justice system prevent wrongful convictions and false confessions? And how can the most vulnerable in society be protected from an overzealous judicial system?
Along the way, police interviewed Brendan Dassey, Avery’s teenaged nephew who lived next door. The series featured a video recording of Dassey’s interrogation by police. Dassey, who has a below average IQ, appeared to be coerced into confessing to committing the crime along with his uncle, Steven. According to the documentary, Dassey had recounted his activities on the day of the murder several times before the confession. His story included going home after school, playing video games, and eventually attending a bonfire at his uncle’s house. Throughout the interrogation, the investigators pressured Dassey to confess and fed him information about the case. As a viewer, it’s difficult not to sympathize with Dassey who seemed to want to please the investigators and couldn’t withstand the pressure of the interrogation. Recordings of phone conversations with his mother from prison reveal the confusion and panic that seemed to surround all of his interactions with the police. Despite the ineffective and downright deplorable counsel that Brendan received from his public defender (who was later removed from the case), Brendan was not able to effectively recant his confession in court and went on trial for his alleged part in the murder.
Toward the end of the series, the writing seemed to be on the wall for Avery. Though there appeared to be more than enough reasonable doubt, it looked unlikely that the defense would be able to convince a hometown jury that the police were corrupt (again). There may have been more hope for Dassey, the most heartbreaking and likeable character in the case, but, alas, a confession (which very well may have been false and certainly coerced) could not be overcome. Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey were separately sentenced to life in prison. Avery is not eligible for parole and Dassey will not be eligible until 2048. Avery continues to maintain his innocence and has even offered his own list of possible suspects, including his own brothers and brother-in-law.
The documentary is enough to convince the audience that Avery may not have committed the crime and certainly that there was reasonable doubt. However, the prosecution claims that there was more convincing evidence that was not shown in the documentary. Follow up Google searches on the case can provide plenty of additional information on the case and even some theories of who might have committed the crime, if not Steven Avery. Regardless, the documentary convinces the audience to really consider how infallible the criminal justice system is. Should the police and prosecutors always be trusted? Should interrogation techniques be evaluated? How can the criminal justice system prevent wrongful convictions and false confessions? And how can the most vulnerable in society be protected from an overzealous judicial system? Because as Steven Avery said, “Poor people lose all the time.”