Making A Murderer
Written & Directed by Moira Demos & Laura Ricciardi
Featuring Steven Avery, Laura Ricciardi, Danielle Ricciardi, Laura Nirider
Netflix Release: December 18th, 2015
“It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer” – Sir William Blackstone (1765)
The foundation of our legal system in the USA is that you are innocent until proven guilty. Even more so, it is the duty of the prosecution to prove innocence whereas the defense just needs to show reasonable doubt. There’s a scene in the 1994 classic, The Shawshank Redemption where Tommy (Gil Bellows); a new inmate to the prison relates a story where another inmate from his previous prison confessed to the murders that Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is locked away for. When he brings this to the warden’s attention, he is unceremoniously shot in the yard for “trying to escape.” This is a gut-wrenching scene in a near-perfect film. You meet this character and you get your hopes up that he will be the key to Andy’s freedom. And then, he’s dead and Andy’s reaction gets him sent to solitary confinement. If you stretch this one scene into a 10-part documentary series, you’d have Netflix’s Making a Murderer. Unfortunately, unlike Shawshank, this is a true story with real people facing almost unreal circumstances. The story has captured the zeitgeist of America, and has generated a new wave of activism. It’s also the most rage inducing binge-fest on TV.
To give you some background in case you are in the likely minority who has not heard about this, the documentary spans over 30 years in the life of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin native, Steven A. Avery. Avery’s story begins in the early 1980s. While out on bail for an incident involving his cousin, he’s arrested and charged with sexual assault and attempted murder of an upper class woman in Manitowoc. Manitowoc is described as a town of rural farmers; but the Averys did not fit in. They ran a sprawling auto salvage yard and kept mostly to themselves. While the phrase “white trash” is never uttered, it is certainly implied. The above mentioned incident with his cousin had serious repercussions. She was married to a member of the county police, and Steven Avery quickly became a target. Despite 22 witnesses to his defense and no physical evidence to speak of, he was quickly convicted of all charges and sentenced to more than 30 years in prison. For nearly 20 years, his pleas of innocence fell on deaf ears; his wife left him, and he was estranged from his 5 young children.
Lawyers continued to try everything to have the judge overturn the conviction, but it wasn’t until science caught up to Avery’s case. In 2003, 18 years after his conviction, DNA evidence finally proved his innocence, assigning guilt to a serial rapist who was widely known in the area. How did such a seemingly obvious suspect elude custody for 18 years? Easy; no one in Manitowoc law enforcement or the DA’s office cared enough to look. They had Steven Avery and that’s that. When Avery’s lawyers petitioned the Wisconsin Attorney General to look into wrongdoings in his case, they somehow came up empty! All that was left was to seek civil damages and Avery sued Manitowoc County, the Sheriff, and the DA for $36 million in 2005. Right before his civil trial was to commence… Steven Avery was arrested for murder of a missing woman, Teresa Halbach.
If you’re reading that last line in shock… don’t worry, there’s more! I don’t want to give any more away to those who haven’t binged this series yet. In the 3 days it took to watch all ten episodes my range of emotions hit all stops on the continuum. I advise you to watch without heavy objects near you, for you might want to throw these objects at the TV. Also, clean the floor because your jaw will drop. So many times throughout the series I had to remind myself this was non-fiction, because it’s literally unbelievable. The murder charges brought on him also implicates his teenage nephew Brendan Dassey, who is clearly mentally challenged. As a near decade long educator, it is cringe-worthy watching what happens to this kid throughout the ordeal.
Filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi followed this case for a decade, conducting interviews with everyone from members of Avery’s family, Manitowoc law enforcement, Avery’s lawyers, members of the media, and of course Avery himself. They are meticulous in the details; tracing Avery’s past from 1982 all the way to right now. They filmed court room footage from the trials of both he and Dassey. They have local media coverage of the events. They have recorded depositions and interviews with witnesses and suspects. Nothing ever got boring, and had Making a Murderer gone 10 more episodes I would’ve just kept clicking my remote to “play next”.
Arguments have been made by some, including the chief prosecuting attorney in both trials, that plenty has been left out, and the filmmakers are trying to make Avery look more innocent than he is. While I won’t deny that the filmmakers side heavily with the Avery clan, that is the basic nature of documentaries, to make an argument. After over 10-hours of Making a Murderer, I honestly have no clue if Steven Avery is a killer. He may in fact be the Antichrist, a man so evil that he lured a young woman to his property, coerced a 16-year old to rape her and slit her throat, before he shot her and burned her body. He may also be a living martyr; someone destined to be punished for the sins of others. The only thing I do know is that after watching this series I will never ever go to Wisconsin. Every aspect of law enforcement and the judicial system there comes across as disgustingly corrupt. I feel as if you may roll through a stop sign, and go away for 25 years on a trumped up charge.
Since debuting on Netflix in mid-December, Making a Murderer has opened up people’s eyes to this story, and petitions have started to have Avery and Dassey’s cases revisited. A petition sits at over 200,000 signees as of last week, and even President Obama has discussed the documentary. You might never watch anything more addicting or agonizing. The series is like a spectacular car-wreck. You know the end results are bad, but you can’t look away and you’re captivated by every minute. Making a Murderer is streaming on Netflix right now for free with a paid monthly subscription.