The prospect of Steven Avery being wrongfully convicted not once but twice renders Making a Murderer truly compelling viewing. But while it raises serious questions about flaws in the criminal justice system, ultimately the truth remains too elusive to draw any definitive conclusions.
In the recent Boyle’s Hunch episode of the excellent Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Detective Boyle (Joe Lo Truglio) battles to overturn the ten-year prison sentence given out to the object of his affections, Genevieve (Mary Lynn Rajskub).
“As a cop I really don’t think she did it,” he says. “She’s being set up!”
But his desire for justice is ultimately driven by his own personal agenda rather than a professional one, and it’s the real-life implications of such agendas with less honourable intentions that lie at the very heart of Netflix sensation Making a Murderer.
A frustrating, upsetting and exhausting ten episodes, it focuses on Steven Avery, convicted along with his nephew Brendan Dassey regarding the murder of Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin.
With Avery having previously served an 18-year sentence because of a wrongful conviction, it seems all too convenient for the county’s law-enforcement that he should find himself back behind bars for the Halbach case after suing for $36 million (later settling for a much lower sum).
So far, so many compelling reasons to watch: an innocent man seemingly yet again locked up for a crime he didn’t commit, a clear motive for his conviction, and apparent evidence of sustained, blatant police corruption in a plot that only true life can write.
But since the series arrived, just before Christmas at a time of year well-suited to binge-watching, it’s telling that so much more information not contained in the lengthy series continues to emerge.
It’s been called out for failing to disclose evidence far less favourable to Avery, and as Kathryn Schulz writes in The New Yorker, “swaps one absolute for another—and, in doing so, comes to resemble the system it seeks to correct”.
Given the condensing of a series of events stretching across decades, objectivity is overtaken by subjectivity and viewers become amateur detectives in a modern take on trial by media, sitting at odds with the US’s Sixth Amendment stating that in every criminal prosecution the accused has to the right to a trial by an impartial jury.
In a case where the facts are worryingly murky, Avery’s tireless defence attorneys Dean Strang and Jerry Buting emerge as welcome beacons of reason, although having been thrown straight into the spotlight is a concept Strang has understandably described as “bewildering”.
In the penultimate episode he says: “Most of what ails our criminals justice system [lies] in unwarranted certitude on the part of police officers, and prosecutors and defence lawyers and judges and jurors that they’re getting it right, that they simply are right.”
There is a “tragic lack of humility” by everyone who takes part in this system, he adds.
This is the point that emergest clearest from the series: the key role of confirmation bias among police, jury and the broader public to the serious detriment of innocent people. Wrongful conviction could happen to anyone, and “if that happens, then good luck in this criminal justice system,” as Buting wearily observes.
But with the Halbach case less than cut and dried at best, a public swell of support aimed at the wrong target and viewers unqualified to pass judgement in the absence of all information, Making a Murderer perhaps isn’t the best example to shine a light on systemic failings .