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Making a documentary: Murderer Edition


Staff Writer

The American Criminal Justice System purports the famous phrase “innocent until proven guilty.”

The recent culture shock surrounding convicted murderer Steven Avery seems to prove the opposite––declared guilty until proven innocent by a Netflix documentary series.

“Making a Murderer” is a ten-part true-crime Netflix phenomenon. The series follows a man’s journey through being accused of murder, and the resulting media frenzy and trial. The show presents instances of questionable evidence and problematic law enforcement behavior, successfully planting the seeds of doubt in every viewer’s mind about the guilty conviction of Steven Avery, and has led many to question the criminal justice system as a whole.

The show jumps into the past off the bat, discussing Steven Avery’s previous wrongful conviction of sexual assault in the 1980s. He was later proven innocent through DNA evidence in 2003 after having spent 18 years in prison.

Throughout the series, directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos delve deep into Steven Avery’s life after prison, which is characterized by a threat to his newfound freedom – the accusation of murdering a young woman named Teresa Halbach.

Viewers get an in depth look at the 2007 trial of Steven Avery and his nephew, suspected accomplice Brendan Dassey, watching interviews with lawyers, Avery family members and clips of the actual courtroom proceedings.

In finishing the series, the conclusion that the viewers are supposed to arrive at is blaringly obvious: Steven Avery was most definitely framed, and is currently sitting in prison for a crime he did not commit (again). After first watching it I was convinced as well, but later realized there were many lingering unanswered questions.

What did not make the cut? What was filmed that did not perfectly correlate with the story the filmmakers were trying to convey? Every documentary has some sort of purpose, and every director decides what that purpose is.

A truth will be revealed, but it will be the one they have chosen. The reality of the situation is filtered through the filmmaker’s point of view first, which means that it cannot be 100 percent reliable.

The public’s reaction to the series was swift and strong, with uproar on social media and harassment of the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department, whose employees were portrayed as the main framers of Steven Avery.

Although the reaction is understandable if Avery is actually innocent, the decision to completely swallow the work of documentary makers as more valid truth than a full criminal investigation and trial is dangerous.

Time and time again the justice system has failed, but it has also worked. While the documentary certainly exposes faulty facets of the justice system throughout both trials of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, not every single piece of evidence and information was included.

After the public’s explosive reactions surrounding the case, the filmmakers have faced heavy criticism over things that were left out of the series. The proclamation of Steven Avery’s innocence is ignorant of several facts. A few shining examples include his past of animal abuse, claims of abuse from his ex-girlfriend, evidence that was presented at the trial but not in the documentary, etc.

Not to say that this means the series is dishonest. In fact, the documentary perfectly testifies to how the justice system can be severely distorted all in the name of getting a conviction. The arrest and trial of Avery spanned several years, and to show every single detail would be pretty much impossible and extremely tedious to watch.

So the filmmakers did their job, chose what they thought was important and left out what was deemed unworthy. What was left out though, could make all the difference.

The element of bias also factors in. While the filmmakers have claimed they have no opinion about the guilt or innocence of Steven Avery, the series very clearly sides with him. Bias is not something people readily own up to, but it is a part of human nature and has to be looked at when examining the way things were presented in the show.

Yes the system can mess up, case in point Steven Avery’s first wrongful conviction. That does not necessarily correlate to Avery’s innocence in the murder of Teresa Halbach.

“Making a Murderer” has the general public seemingly unable to think critically about the idea that documentaries are not purely straight fact. Binge watching ten episodes of courtroom antics and carefully chosen interviews does not transform any of us into lawyers, judges or jury members.

No one knows for absolute certainty that Avery is innocent, so we must take it upon ourselves to dig deeper than the surface level of a Netflix show. Questioning the case is great, questioning the justice system is crucial but questioning the series is just as essential.

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