In mid-December, Netflix released a 10-part documentary called “Making a Murderer.” Filmed over the course of 10 years, the series follows the legal trials and tribulations of Steven Avery, a resident of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.
As it begins, Avery is being released from prison after serving 18 years for the sexual assault and attempted murder of Penny Beerntsen; as it ends, Avery has returned to jail, convicted of the murder of Teresa Halbach.
“Making A Murderer” is now a cultural phenomenon. In an era where binge-watching is a verb, this is a crime drama that viewers can absorb immediately and analyze publicly. The phenomenal aspect of the series is primarily attributed to the corruption angle in the story.
After DNA evidence proved another man had attacked Beerntsen, Avery sued Manitowoc County officials for $36 million. His civil lawsuit claimed county officials had at best conducted a sloppy investigation and a blind prosecution, and at worst had framed him because of personal vendettas against him and his family.
Shortly after county officials were deposed in that case, Teresa Halbach was murdered. Days later, her car and bodily remains were found in the large salvage yard Avery’s family operated. As police made their way to the crime scene, one officer asked dispatch to confirm Avery was under arrest.
So began Avery’s second odyssey through the court system.
He was again convicted for a crime that he, again, insists he did not commit. The drama swirls around whether Manitowoc County could again be accused of planting evidence to build a false case against Avery. Viewers learn about evidence found under suspicious circumstances, conflicts of interest that are acknowledged but not managed, and a confession by Avery’s nephew that directly implicates both the man and the teenager in Teresa Halbach’s death.
Brendan Dassey is that nephew. At the time of the crime, he was a teenager with learning disabilities. He insisted his initial and subsequent confessions were coerced. The videotapes of those confessions, which are featured in the documentary, support his claim.
Popular conversation centers on whether you believe in the conspiracy/coercion theories, or whether you believe in the guilt of one of the defendants, or both of them.
There is a much more disturbing aspect, however, to “Making A Murderer.” Avery and Dassey are poor and not well-educated. They live in trailers on their family’s salvage yard. In a recorded jailhouse call, Dassey asks his mother what “inconsistent” means. She tells him she does not know.
It is difficult not to wonder whether either man would have been found guilty if he’d come from a more privileged background and had more money to fight the charges against him. Does either man sit in jail because he’s guilty of being poor, not because he’s guilty of being a criminal?
The question is put into beautiful but depressing relief by Byran Stevenson in his book, “Just Mercy.” The book has nothing to do with the Avery case directly, but it draws from the same themes. It details Stevenson’s creation of, and work for, the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation for indigent defendants and prisoners whose cases involve some element of injustice wrought by the judicial process itself.
Through EJI’s work, homeless children won reduced prison sentences, minorities received adequate defense resources for the first time, and mentally disabled inmates benefited from an advocate for more humane treatment behind bars. Each of the EJI’s clients is poor. Each of EJI’s clients was rendered defenseless for lack of financial, psychological, and/or intellectual resources to mount a defense.
Stevenson concluded we need to reform a criminal justice system that treats “people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.”
Regardless of which side you take in the water-cooler discussions about Avery, Stevenson’s warning is one you should spend some time considering. Because these aren’t just stories created for our entertainment. These are real lives, and real tragedies.