We watched the Netflix true crime documentary series Making a Murderer very quickly – ten hours of dense and visually dull courtroom footage and stock linking shots of seasons changing in Manituwoc County, punctuated by the occasional thrilling interview with defense lawyer Dean Strang; as entertainment it mostly, surprisingly, worked.
As with Adnan Syed’s case in Serial, I ended up feeling much more righteously indignant about the state of the justice system here than about the specific fate of Steven Avery. I mean, he probably did it, right? Men murder women all the time, and no plausible alternative suspects were presented. There wasn’t even a ‘Jay’ or a ‘Don’ to consider, and if there had been, the end result is just as terrible for Teresa’s family: she’s still dead, most likely horribly murdered. But whether or not I (or any other armchair observer of this case) think he did it is irrelevant: Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey were not afforded the presumption of innocence – in theory the foundation of the system in which they were tried – and their lawyers seemed never to have to clear more than the lowest hurdles in order to secure convictions, along with immense jail sentences. Some people perceive the risk of setting a guilty man free to be greater than the risk of imprisoning the wrong guy, and obviously I don’t feel that way, but having watched the show it’s hard to see how we could achieve the required systemic change to avoid it. I did quite a lot of yelling at the television and thumping my fists on the couch as I watched scenes of Brendan Dassey being coerced by police or set up by his own lawyer, or the judge blithely dismissing motions to instruct the jury in matters that seemed horribly prejudicial.
Katherine Schultz writes about some other problems with the series in the New Yorker – in essence that the documentary makers’ position on Avery’s guilt is as calculated to mislead as that of the prosecutors in the case, and that important evidence is omitted in order to support their narrative. Perhaps this is revisionism, but I feel like I was alert to that likelihood throughout; nonetheless, it’s an important consideration as this kind of documentary storytelling becomes more common.