‘Making a Murderer’ a stomach-churning true crime series that examines institutional corruption

By Nate Taskin

Making A Murderers Official Facebook Page)
(‘Making A Murderer’ Official Facebook Page)

Soon after Steven Avery has been arrested for the murder of Teresa Halbach, he tells his then-girlfriend, Jodi Stachowski, over the phone that “poor people always lose.” Given the way the legal system consistently abuses its power at the expense of the powerless, it’s hard not to agree with him.

Netflix’s new true crime documentary series, “Making a Murderer,” examines how a mixture of institutional incompetence and active malevolence leads to the complete disregard of fair trials. It challenges the viewer to question the differences between “guilty,” “innocent” and “reasonable doubt.” All the while, it rakes in those “are you kidding me?” moments right down until the final episode.

In 1985, Wisconsin native Steven Avery was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to 18 years. When new DNA evidence pointed to a different culprit, Avery was exonerated. In response to his wrongful imprisonment and the gross negligence carried out by Manitowoc Police Department, Avery filed, in 2003, a $36 million federal lawsuit against the county, its former sheriff and its former district attorney.

Two years later, the charred bone fragments of photographer Teresa Halbach were found on Avery’s salvage yard, and, like clockwork, Avery was charged for her murder. Despite the evidence that points otherwise, Avery’s defense insists that the police department framed him in order to squiggle out of any restitution that may have been forced to pay. Closer examination, including a literal missing key, reveals that the argument may have some merit. Filmed over a course of 10 years, “Making a Murderer” chronicles the absurd, outrageous events that transpired around the Avery case, as well as the consequences of the final verdict.

If one distilled all of the key moments of “Making a Murderer” into an episode of “Law and Order” I would dismiss it as too over-the-top. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, the series’ co-directors, prove themselves masters of character establishment. With just a few quick introductory words from the subjects themselves about moral convictions or failed re-election campaigns, we know whether or not to find a person trustworthy or duplicitous. While this summary makes the series seem a touch manipulative and biased (not that a documentary has an obligation to strive for objectivity anyway), it speaks volumes to the way the media damned Avery before he even went to trial. “Guilty until proven guilty,” his attorney Jerry Buting says. Perhaps, before we pass judgment, he deserves to be un-damned.

Nevertheless, I find that the conversation around Avery’s guilt or innocence – though necessary – is somewhat irrelevant to the show’s ultimate point. A minor backlash has crept up against “Making a Murderer” because of its omission of evidence that paints Avery in a less favorable light. The case’s sleazy, weasel-voiced prosecutor, Ken Kratz (that’s not me projecting my own opinions on the case, as Kratz’s law license was suspended after he sexually harassed his client’s girlfriend) has raised a recent fuss over the show’s biases, though most of his arguments are consistent with the defense’s framing theory.

Stachowski’s allegations of abuse are far more alarming and plausible, and her real life relationship with Avery was in all likelihood far more toxic than the tragic love story that Demos and Ricciardi frame it as. Make no mistake, Steven Avery could be guilty, and his idealistic lawyers could be fighting a lost cause, yet it’s a grave mistake to view “Making a Murderer” as a whodunit.

“Making a Murderer” demonstrates how all of us, regardless of our actual guilt or innocence, can get screwed over by a self-righteous, vindictive system if we have the audacity to challenge it. There’s a reason that, unlike “Serial,” this series does not present us with any alternative suspects, though Reddit pseudo-sleuths may try to fill in the gaps themselves. Ricciardi and Demos aim to instill the sense of nausea and exhaustion that stems from a sense of inevitable doom hurtling towards you – one that, because of your environment and background, you can do nothing to stop.

There’s a reason why, in the back half of the series, it pivots away from Steven Avery to his obviously innocent nephew, Brendan Dassey. Dassey, a teenager with obvious mental disabilities, was accused of aiding his uncle in the murder, even though his confession was obviously coerced, and the poor kid was so unaware of his situation that he thought that, right after he confessed, he could return to class in time to turn in a project.

One of the most poignant moments in “Making a Murderer” occurs during a phone conversation between Dassey and his mother. When told that his confession is “inconsistent,” he asks his mother, “What does inconsistent mean?” She sighs, and replies, “I don’t know.” The legal system should dedicate itself to both the defense of society as well as those that society has accused, yet it so often fails on both fronts, and instead seeks to chew up and spit out those who don’t know how to protect themselves from its wrath. Manipulated into a false confession and deceived by a reprehensible lawyer who wanted to see him convicted, Dassey’s treatment is indefensible.

Brendan Dassey provides the beating heart of the story, and Steven Avery channels our intellectual outrage. “Making a Murderer” shows how the cops genuinely believed that these two lower class men – mistrusted by the rest of the community and even referred to as “something close to pure evil” in court proceedings – were guilty before they even started the investigation, and tampered with evidence to prove it. No one, in good conscience, can say that a fair trial arose from these pernicious circumstances.

While Avery’s innocence is ambiguous, the state’s guilt is undeniable.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected]