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Making a Murderer

Steven Avery at Trial | Photograph by Jeffery Phelps via The New Yorker

Steven Avery at Trial | Photograph by Jeffery Phelps via The New Yorker

Binge-watching is the new global pastime, but even though it was declared the Collins’ Dictionary 2015 Word of the Year, I don’t think the world understood its meaning until Netflix’s surprise Christmas gift of Making a Murderer entered our consciousness. I have never been so sure of my answer when Netflix asked if I would like to continue watching.

Making a Murderer is less than a month old but already it’s inspiring outrage, leading to online detective work and White House petitions. The series follows a Wisconsin man, Steven Avery, who was wrongfully accused in 1985 and spent eighteen years in prison for a sexual assault crime he did not commit. Shortly after he was exonerated, and during his pending $36 million civil suit against his hometown of Manitowoc County, Avery was arrested for the murder of Theresa Halbach, whose charred remains were found in a burn pit behind his property.

The docusereis, by filmmakers Moria Demos and Laura Ricciardi, focuses mainly on the questionable conduct of law enforcement. The series leads viewers to believe that Manitowoc County officers coerce confessions and plant evidence on the Avery property to ensure Steven's conviction, saving themselves from deposition and financial ruin that would have resulted from his civil suit.

Part of me was aware that I was being manipulated by the filmmakers; the Manitowoc County Sheriffs Department cannot be as corrupt as they are portrayed; Steven’s previous crimes must have been underplayed. But even so the documentary makes a convincing argument for Avery’s innocence. His county and community had convicted him in their minds before he set foot in a courtroom, before he was taken into custody even. Partially that is due to the inappropriate media coverage of the press conferences held by the now resigned D.A. Ken Kratz of the unfolding crime, and part of that is because of who the Averys were as a family.

In their hometown the Averys were outsiders, and Steven was a crass troublemaker with an IQ of 70. He made a criminal name for himself at an early age, and this is why law enforcement immediately suspect him without evidence, and arrest him while ignoring every other lead they had. Neither the media coverage, nor Steven’s history should have played into his trial’s verdict. Even if he did commit the crime, which I am becoming more and more convinced of, the gross misconduct by law enforcement and inherent unfairness of his jury pool should have at least granted him a mistrial.

Ostensibly this show argues for the reform of the American justice system, but at it’s core I think it’s thesis is expressed best by Steven in episode three of the series. “Poor people lose. Poor people lose all the time,” Steven utters over the phone to his parents from his jail cell.

When news broadcasts and media outlets deny that their sensationalist coverage of the investigation had no bearing on the fairness of Steven’s trial, they cite the OJ Simpson’s case. For months, legal commentators and news anchors screamed OJ’s guilt, yet he was found innocent and was released. The cases are remarkably similar to one another except for their suspects.

I’m sure wealth and class aren’t the only factors that influenced each trial’s outcome, but it certainly played a factor. Whether it be the resources they had, their social status, or their cognitive capacity which developed long before the trial, the Avery family was vastly underprepared to deal with law enforcement, and most if not all of those shortcomings can be linked to their economic situation.

It’s a frustrating case, and while the criminal justice system apparently does need reform, Steven and his family suffer from another kind of systemic corruption. One that even Blackstone's formulation can't influence.