A True Crime Documentary Series

We all love a good courtroom drama. TV justice is always the best kind of justice and, almost always, bad guys are punished and good guys exonerated. That equation changes, however, when TV and real life intersect.Making a Murderer, a new Netflix true crime documentary series is a case in point.

Making a Murderer  follows on the heels of events that have fundamentally eroded confidence in how justice is administered in the United States. Recent cases in which prosecutors and grand juries have failed to indict police involved in confrontations that led to fatal consequences have made international headlines. Michael BrownSandra BlandTamir Rice. Even outside the United States, these names ring a bell. This year, The Guardian has reported the existence of a secret prison in Chicago, where people were detained, without access to a lawyer, at the police’s discretion. 2015 was a record year for police-perpetrated killings. These revelations have left many disillusioned with the American justice system. 

Unraveling  “Making a Murderer”

Enter Making a Murderer . Conceptually, the series owes much to classics of the true crime genre, such as The Thin Blue Line, Paradise Lost, and The Staircase. It also comes at a time in which 2014 podcast phenomenon Serial and last year’s viral hit The Jinx have captured people’s attention. Yet, Making a Murderer  tells its own idiosyncratic story. Having spent 18 years in prison wrongfully convicted of a 1985 rape, the show’s main subject, Steven Avery, finds himself charged with murder. The series meticulously works through the murder investigation and subsequent trial, featuring an extraordinary breadth of material, including a plethora of interviews, courtroom footage and news coverage. What follows is a simultaneously captivating and massively depressing story about truth, justice and humanity.

The series picks up momentum when Steven’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, implicates himself in the crime as well. Brendan’s cognitive abilities are severely limited. The series features several phone conversations with his mother that are hard to listen to, as Brendan is unwittingly getting himself in trouble. There is a real sense that what happens to Brendan is almost more egregious than Steven Avery’s fate. At least, Avery seems to be aware of what is going on. Not so much with Brendan. Under police questioning, the sixteen year old teenager repeatedly breaks down. The series lives on these instances of voyeurism. They are essential in driving home the series’ main message; that what matters in the American justice system, more than in anything, is power. Ultimately, Making a Murderer documents the contrast between the powerful and the powerless. Within this framework, what is going on at times is hard to believe. The series serves as a reminder that, truly, reality is stranger than fiction. You would not believe it if it were made up.

At various times throughout the ten-episode series, the viewer is left with a thorough sense of dissatisfaction. What goes on inside the courtroom is often particularly appalling. The police officers and prosecutors involved in the case appear more reminiscent of a James Ellroy novel than of real life law enforcement. By contrasting him with Steven Avery’s attorneys, the show skillfully reinforces the almost villainous aura of characters like lead prosecutor Ken Kratz. While Avery’s lawyers Dean Strang and Jerry Buting are the much needed voice of reason, Ken Kratz is the series’ antagonist. As such, Making a Murderer plays almost like a Marvel superhero movie. Good and bad are clearly delineated.

We need characters like Dean Strang to remind us that “they are not doing it because they believe he’s innocent, they are doing it because they believe he’s guilty”.

Among many, this is one of the most memorable quotes, encapsulating what is rotten in the American justice system. The same applies to the Michael Browns and Tamir Rices of the world. They are guilty before ever getting the chance to set foot in a courtroom.

Photo credits: Netflix

Photo credits: Netflix

Visually, the series’ creators have done a masterful job in setting the scene in which the proceedings take place, a sleepy rural area in Wisconsin. Sweeping aerial shots show an American hinterland in decay; a sea of concrete, trailer parks and bad haircuts. The contrast between this environment and the excitement around the trial of Stephen Avery is palpable. Quite literally, it is the biggest show in town. At least, this is what the documentary would have us believe. The frequent visits to the Avery residence, adjacent a spooky auto salvage yard, suggest to the viewer a chilling sense of abandonment. The Averys are abandoned in every sense – by the community, by the justice system, and ultimately by society itself, as much as the cars abandoned on the salvage yard. The Averys are literally trash.

Whatever else the viewer may think of Steven Avery, the conduct of his trial just seems wrong on every level. It remains unresolved how much bias the series’ creators allowed themselves. Plentiful exonerating evidence is shown, while interviews with prosecutors and police serve mainly to demonstrate how contradictory and non-sensical the prosecution’s case really is. However, some of the contradictions highlighted in Making a Murderer are difficult to square with common sense. They also illuminate all that is problematic in a jury system. The notion that Steven Avery is a bad human being often seems to be much more important than the story told by the facts. Innocent until proven guilty is a notion not everyone gets to enjoy. For some people, the reverse is the norm. That is a scary thought.

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Tim Pfefferle

Tim Pfefferle

Tim is currently a graduate student in Global Governance and Diplomacy at the University of Oxford, and has previously worked for the German government in promoting the global energy transition.