Saturday, April 2, 2016

So You Want to Make a "Murderer"

The latest true crime documentary hit, following in the footsteps of "Serial" and "The Jinx," comes from Netflix.  A few months ago, they released the ten part series "Making a Murder," which looks at the purported crimes of Steven Avery from Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.  The less you know about him and what happened to him, the better "Making a Murderer" plays, so I strongly advise you to watch the series before reading further. It's hard to talk about what I liked and didn't like about it without getting pretty deep into spoilers.  I absolutely think it's worth the watch, providing a much-needed look at some disturbing law enforcement practices and myriad failures of the American judicial system.

After marathoning through all ten episodes, I think I've spent an equal amount of time online reading up on and discussing the Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey cases.  I'm not the only one who has been affected this way, as it seems like everyone who has seen the series has a new opinion, a new theory, or a new take on the depicted events.  The media attention has been massive, putting many who were involved with the prosecution of Avery and Dassey on the defensive.  Best of all, it's really jump-started some important conversations about all the biases and weaknesses of the American criminal justice system.  In that sense, "Making a Murder" is a major success for its creators.

The series' greatest strength is that way that it systematically documents, step by step, all the different ways that Avery and Dassey were deeply disadvantaged during their legal fight, which was essentially decided before it began.  We follow them through the arrests, the police investigation, the media coverage, the trial, and the appeals process, facing one hurdle after another.  You see the way that their social status, poverty, mental capacity, and prior history in the community are all liabilities.  Even with good lawyers, Avery and Dassey cannot overcome the overwhelming advantage that the investigators and prosecution have in their control of information and the positions of authority they enjoy.

I have plenty of criticisms, however.  I pointed out in my review of "The Jinx" last year that I was highly disturbed by the way that some of the footage was edited to play up the melodrama and create this elaborate "gotcha" moment.  I think "Making a Murderer" is generally less manipulative, though it still has some major biases that I struggled with in many episodes.  The main one is that the filmmakers are staunchly on the side of Avery and Dassey throughout the documentary, while I remain unconvinced that that Avery is innocent.  There was clearly some police and attorney misconduct going on that heavily impacted the cases, but the central question as to whether Avery actually was responsible for the crime was never addressed to my satisfaction.  I didn't want answers, but I expected better presentation of the questions.

From interviews with the documentarians, they believe that they have provided an impartial account of the trial and left the question of Avery and Dassey's guilt ambiguous.  "Murderer," however, is presented in a way that wants us to feel sympathy for the accused at every turn.  We see the story almost entirely from Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey's perspectives, there are multiple interviews with Avery's loved ones at every turn, and interjections from Avery's lawyers and other legal professionals painstakingly explain every dirty trick and manipulative tactic used by the prosecution.  I'm very concerned at some of the reactions I've read from people who are absolutely convinced that Steven Avery is innocent, when the facts present a far more muddled picture to me.  I found Avery's defense pretty far-fetched and expected him to be convicted from the outset, even though I'm not sure if he's guilty.

The case against Brendan Dassey's was far flimsier, and "Making a Murderer" was able to provide a much more comprehensive, convincing argument for his innocence, and tie it in to the misconduct of the police and others involved.  The most outrage-inducing material by far involves the contradictory confessions that police elicited from Dassey, that were backed up by no physical evidence whatsoever.  The documentary is worth watching for Dassey's story alone, which provides a frightening illustration of exactly why confessions can't always be trusted, and how completely innocent people can end up behind bars.  Similar cases have come up before, but this one is especially riveting because of the extent of the investigators' bad actions, and how much of it was caught on tape.

Since the convictions were pronounced eight years ago, I feel that there's enough distance from the depicted events that "Making a Murderer" isn't on quite such shaky moral ground as "The Jinx."  However, I think that its creators could have done more to keep the documentary focused on its criticisms of the legal system rather than Steve Avery's defense.  It's rare to find a series like this that is so exhaustive in its research, so detailed in its account, and so demanding of a response.  In short, it's so good that I'm frustrated about the choices that I feel undercut its credibility.


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