Making a Murderer: US travesty of justice exposed

February 22, 2016
Steven Avery.

Making a Murderer
Written & directed by Laura Ricciardi & Moira Demos

The Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer, directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, tears the mask off the United States criminal justice system. It reveals, in clear-cut, heart-wrenching detail, the depths of its inhumanity.

The show is about the case of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man serving life in prison for a murder he maintains he never committed. In a matter of weeks, it has become one of the most widely watched series on Netflix — and ignited a firestorm of political debate about the criminal justice system.

A petition calling on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and President Barack Obama to pardon Avery has received more than 500,000 signatures.

I don't want to spoil the series for people who have not seen it yet, and I cannot possibly go over all the details. Instead, I want to draw out a few points that Making a Murderer reveals about the nature of the criminal justice system. And make a case that the series's resonance with a mass audience shows the opportunity for opponents of the criminal justice system to expand their efforts — particularly in building cross-racial coalitions between families who have had their lives torn apart by the so-called justice system.

The first episodes take viewers through Avery's first conviction and incarceration for a rape he never committed (he was eventually cleared by DNA evidence). It demonstrates with hard, irrefutable facts how the Manitowoc County Sheriff's Department and prosecutor railroaded him, even in the face of evidence proving his innocence.

The rest of the series is spent taking us inside the trial of Avery and Brendan Dassey, Avery's 16-year-old, intellectually disabled cousin, for the murder of Teresa Halbach. The episodes are filled with interviews and evidence that will make even the most apolitical viewer seriously question the legitimacy of the justice system.

The first thing that stands out in Making a Murderer is how much the system is built to secure convictions and stacked against defendants, especially when they are poor. Rather than “seeking out justice”, prosecutors were more concerned with finding a culprit and securing a conviction — in spite of evidence that cast doubt on their case.

Had Avery been rich and able to hire a team of lawyers to defend him, it is highly unlikely he would have spent a day behind bars. Most public defenders, on the other hand, despite their best efforts and intentions, are overloaded with hundreds of clients and lacking resources.

A recent study showed that public defenders in New Orleans were only able to spend seven minutes on average with their clients. If Steven Avery had grown up on the right side of town, protected by wealth and privilege, it is unlikely he would have ever been targeted by police in the first place.

One of the most disturbing parts of the criminal justice system revealed in Making a Murderer is the absence of any meaningful independent oversight over police and prosecutors — and the unchecked power they hold.

Never at any point were law enforcement or prosecutors held accountable. This ranges from the Manitowoc County Sheriff's Department cover-up of evidence proving Avery's innocence in his first conviction, to the illegal interrogation of Dassey carried out by special prosecutors — by far one of the most difficult and enraging parts of the series to watch.

It is telling that it was Avery and his lawyers, not the legal system, who filed a lawsuit in 2003 against the sheriff's department for cover-up and false imprisonment. Making a Murderer further proves what the Black Lives Matter movement has been saying so loudly since the killing of Black men Mike Brown and Eric Garner: The system is fixed in favour of police and prosecutors.

Making a Murderer also takes the media to task. It documents how the corporate news establishment uncritically spoon-feeds audiences every word out of prosecutors' mouths.

Rather than digging for the truth, asking tough questions and treating defendants as “innocent until proven guilty”, the media sensationalised Avery's case. It convinced the public that he was guilty long before any verdict had been reached — making it near impossible for him to receive a fair and impartial trial.

With the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement this past year and the effect it has had in changing people's ideas about the criminal justice system, Making a Murderer could not have come out at a better time.

African Americans make up 39% of the US prison population, making them the largest of the overrepresented racial groups in the prison system. Although whites are not jailed at the same disproportionate rate as African Americans, they still make up 33% of a prison population that is larger than any other country in the world. That is roughly 600,000 people — almost all poor and working class.
Avery is white, but watching Making a Murderer, I could not help but think about these statistics. I could not help but think about all the other Averys — and the many thousands of Black and Brown victims of the system — and the potential for building cross-racial alliances between working-class and poor around this issue.

If you are looking for an upbeat show, Making a Murderer does not fit the bill. But even in a story filled with so much injustice, it gives us some glimpses of hope. The dedication of Avery's parents; his defence attorneys Jerry Buting and Dean Strang; and Dassey's mother to keep fighting for the two men's freedom, even against seemingly insurmountable odds, is deeply moving.

It is stories like these that remind me why I am a socialist and give me hope that a different world is possible: because they show the best of humanity and the capacity that ordinary people have to stand in solidarity with one another and fight for a better world — even in the face of such a cruel system.

If you have not watched Making a Murderer yet, clear out your next day off and get ready to binge-watch one of the best documentary series you have ever seen.

[Abridged from US Socialist Worker.]

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