Get comfy especially if a winter storm is coming your way and binge watch some Making a Murderer on Netflix. It is absolutely fascinating and takes you through the life and trials of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. It’s up to you the viewer to decide if you think they are guilty or innocent. Although it must be hard for Teresa Halbach’s family to endure the continued media coverage generated by this ground breaking documentary film, this film is five stars on Netflix for a reason. It also comes at a time when concerns are growing around criminal justice reform, police relations, the media’s role, and how being accused of a crime impacts you for the rest of your life whether you’re guilty or innocent. These are discussions that we need to have given the current ‘war on due process’ climate in the United States of America.
Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, the producers of Making a Murderer, spent ten years creating this documentary. They absolutely invested the time in looking at all the dynamics of the case of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey in their entirety. They are being accused of not providing all the prosecution’s evidence and doing a defense advocacy film. They responded with the assertion they didn’t leave out anything that would have been a game changer. They also say it isn’t an advocacy film, it’s a social justice film. The footage used to create the documentary included actual press conferences, media coverage, court documents, courtroom activity, investigations, and personal accounts of the people involved. They presented the information in chronological order. The investment in the long term outcome of the murder trials and the resulting documentary explain why the filmmakers were so committed. They documented the forces around us in real time and used actual testimony, video, and court documents to help you the viewer follow along.
After watching Making a Murderer, it is hard to deny that America is in need of criminal justice reform. The trampling of due process rights alone is cause for alarm. I didn’t understand a headline in the New York Times ‘Making a Murderer’ Is About Justice, Not Truth” until I watched the ten episode series on Netflix. I interpret this now as regardless of the crime you are accused of, rich or poor, guilty or innocent, you are an American and are entitled to the protections of the Constitution of the United States. The Bill of Rights gives you a right to due process protections in the event you have been accused of a crime: police must have probable cause to search your person and property; you have a right to remain silent; and you have a right to be represented by a defense attorney.
Amendment IV: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
Amendment V: No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
Amendment VI: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.
In recent years with the explosion of the information age, we have been informed of multiple travesties of justice. Coupled with the recent developments in the collection of DNA evidence to help identify who and what happened at the crime scene(s), these new weapons in our investigation arsenal are a game changer. Forensic Science and national databases are helping us solve current and past cases, and clear the names of those wrongfully accused. Steven Avery was exonerated of a rape charge after his defense counsel insisted that the DNA evidence on file be tested, given our new technologies. They learned that the sample belonged to Gregory Allen who was a repeat offender incarcerated three times for violent and drug related felonies and the crime persisted after Avery was wrongfully convicted. Avery was imprisoned in 1985 and released eighteen years later in 2003.
Avery’s case and that of his nephew Brendan reveal that our constitutional right to due process is being trampled on in some cases. This same theory applies to both the military and college campus tribunals and has recently become fodder for debate. Both lawyers and advocates are concerned that using a single investigator model to determine guilt or innocence of a felony crime with a preponderance of the evidence (50%) is a violation of due process rights, whether in favor of the accused or the accuser. Our civilian counterparts can request a jury by trial if they are accused of a felony crime. We have a Constitutional right to an attorney, which is not always guaranteed in a tribunal setting. Avery’s case also revealed how “to be accused is to lose.” Once you have been accused of a crime, you cannot escape that accusation regardless of whether or not you were found guilty especially in today’s digital age. This has life long consequences on your future and ability to thrive in both personal and professional life. It begs us to look at the role of media when covering crime in our communities.
Regardless of whether or not you think Avery and Dassey are guilty, the film spotlights that in our current system, corruption appears to go unchecked, the use of media by those involved in the case and media reporting may be negatively impacting your right to a fair and impartial trial, and people are in fact wrongfully accused of crimes they did not commit because due process rights were not afforded. In an effort to honor both Teresa Halbach and her family, I want to end this piece by emphasizing that it was not Steven Avery or Brendan Dassey or the defense attorneys or the filmmakers fault that this set of circumstances played out the way they did. Don’t shoot the messengers who laid out the events in a way that you could follow and understand. If we want to address criminal justice reform, we need to evaluate the cases in our courts to determine what the problems are. We are not doing it to harm the victims, we are doing it to honor them and prevent others from becoming victims of crimes too.
For a timeline of events for the Avery and Dassey cases, please click here.