Saturday, February 06, 2016

Wisconsinjustice: Taking a Look at 'Making a Murderer'

SPOILER ALERT: While I will aim to be vague enough about specific details so as not to rob Making a Murderer of its suspense as television, it chronicles real-life events that I will address, so some may wish to avoid reading this until after they have watched the entire first season. 

Between Tuesday, January 26 and Tuesday, February 2, I watched all 10 hourlong episodes of Netflix' Making a Murderer documentary series.

This was about a month or more later than many others had seemingly watched it, as until David Bowie died on Jan. 10, no other topic--save perhaps for politics--filled my Facebook news feed with greater preponderance in early 2016.

Although not a huge binge watcher of TV series--and with Making a Murderer having been released in full and garnering such attention and commentary, it's hard to envision watching it episodically over 10 weeks--my initial avoidance wasn't based so much on time, disinterest or aversion as technical impairment.

Through Sony Blu-ray players in both my bedroom and living room, hard-wired to a cable modem/router, I am able to access Netflix streaming content to watch on TV. But for no known reason--and I've talked to Netflix, Comcast and Sony without resolution--in the bedroom Netflix constantly stalls and rebuffers. As this is where I would most utilize Netflix, I had canceled it awhile back.

Although all the commotion about Making a Murderer made me curious, the premise of a purportedly wrongly accused and judicially railroaded suspect didn't sound like anything all that new to me.

While I haven't heard the podcast series called Serial, which I believe also covers a dubious murder case, I have seen Errol Morris' documentary The Thin Blue Line--which actually led to a reversal--and the story of the West Memphis 3 in West of Memphis and/or Paradise Lost: Purgatory. (I'm not sure if I saw both of these or just one, but the latter is the third part of a trilogy on the case, broadcast by HBO.)

I've also read John Grisham's non-fiction book The Innocent Man, whose subtitle, "Murder and Injustice in a Small Town" could essentially serve to define the domain of all these cases--and undoubtedly many more of which I'm not specifically aware.

Let me state here that I do not hate "the cops" and have generally positive regard for all who serve and protect, whether police, sheriff's department personnel, prosecutors, investigators and judges.

I have never gotten so much as a speeding ticket--knock on wood--and particularly with the son of a close friend an active-duty police officer, I have a bit of awareness and a ton of respect for the constant challenges and dangers, inordinate bravery and instantaneous decisions that are often involved.

Anyone who ever puts on a police uniform demonstrates daily more courage than I ever will.

Yet much as there are wonderful and lousy, kindhearted and malevolent, honorable and corrupt teachers, doctors, corporate executives and everything else, there are along with many very good cops undoubtedly some--perhaps even several--very bad ones.

It's likely even fair to say there are good cops, prosecutors, judges, etc. who simply make wrongful, misguided decisions, whether in the name of overzealousness or even just to corroborate a likely accurate hunch.

I don't believe in blanket condemnation and would like to believe that whether in small towns or big cities, cops and sheriffs and FBI agents are predominantly good and extremely admirable.

But whether through the epidemic of police officers demonstrating excessive force and a lack of restraint--if not exhibiting outright bias--in incidents that have left several young black men & women dead, or more Machiavellian cases such as those cited here, it isn't hard to believe that the police and judicial system are often far from fair and just.

Some of the scenes that stand out most from Making a Murderer--and I know this is a bit out of order in recapping my feelings about it--are ones in which a prosecution lawyer decries even the notion (raised by the defense) that sheriff's department personnel and others could have planted evidence or done anything improper.

It's fair to suggest Americans don't want to believe cops are crooked, but it's also idiotic--given many proven examples--to think that the possibility doesn't exist.

So although Making a Murderer was heralded by many people I respect--including my best friend Jordan on Christmas Eve, before most had seemed to ingest it all--especially as I couldn't watch from bed, I wasn't sure I really needed to.

But it did begin to feel like something with which I should familiarize myself, if merely to partake in personal and societal conversations

So after Jordan recently reiterated his regard for the series, I re-started my Netflix subscription and watched the 10 episodes over 8 days, mostly on a Kindle in bed though occasionally in the living room.

For those unfamiliar, the show is a documentary--albeit one with a clear point of view--created, written and directed by Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi.

Making a Murderer chronicles a Manitowoc, Wisconsin man named Steven Avery, who was convicted in 1985 of sexual assault despite seemingly disputable evidence, with more holes arising in 1995 but kept under wraps. After serving 18 years in prison, Avery was released in 2003 after DNA evidence proved the crime was committed by another man, whom the Manitowoc County Sheriff's Department might well have considered a better suspect from the beginning.

But that's not the main part of the story; just the first episode.

In late 2005, amid depositions of key personnel involved in Avery's 1985 arrest and convictions for a $36 million lawsuit he had filed, a young Auto Trader photographer named Teresa Halbach came to the Avery family's salvage yard business, on the grounds of which Steven and others lived, to photograph a van for sale.

And was never seen again.

Bone fragments were found on the Avery compound, suggesting that Halbach had been killed and mutilated. After additional evidence started to turn up, in some ways mysteriously, Steven Avery was charged with her murder. His learning-challenged 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, was subsequently charged as an accomplice. (Avery himself is a relatively simple man supposedly with an IQ of 70.)

This is about what I knew before I began watching Making a Murderer, so although you can probably guess where things go or readily read about it, the show largely centers on how the murder case is presented--from both sides--and makes for pretty compelling television.

Given that I've only successfully binge-watched the 3 seasons of Netflix' Orange is the New Black--and yes the technical difficulties were manifest then too--and recently Season 1 of USA's Mr. Robot, just the fact that Making a Murderer engaged me enough to watch the 10 episodes in a fell swoop speaks to it being quality viewing. It's a bit akin to the page-turners I read in 3 days; even if not great literature there's obviously something I greatly enjoy.

Yet somewhat contradictory, I didn't find myself all that riveted by the series. If not for wanting to discuss MAM with Jordan and others, participate in the cultural conversation and write this blog post about it, it's possible I would have bailed after a few episodes.

I quickly got the general gist, and it reflected what I had anticipated and encountered before.

I won't reveal the verdicts here, but at least in his murder trial as shown by the documentarians, I can't say I believed Steven Avery to be innocent beyond a reasonable doubt any more than I found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Still, based on what was depicted--and there are now charges, including by the main prosecutor (who did not come off well in the series), that key evidence and even damning characterizations of Avery's past were left out of the program, which did seem slanted in this direction--it appears that Steven Avery was railroaded. Certainly once, and if not as conclusively, twice, at least in terms of questionable actions by sheriffs' personnel, detectives, prosecution, etc.

And Brendan Dassey definitely seemed to be badly mishandled.

After finishing Making a Murderer, I've probably read about a dozen articles on it, citing various opinions and points of view. 

I found Kathryn Schulz' piece for New Yorker to be pretty astute in pointing out flaws in how the filmmakers presented their evidence. (For me, just the fact that they seemingly had been filming and interviewing participants since 2005 has to be considered in terms of the need to wind up with a cogent series to sell Netflix, with possible editing to erase conflicting evidence or suppositions.)

Of the thousands of articles Google will surface offering opinions on holes in the prosecution's evidence or what the documentary revealed, as well as oodles of alternate theories and vociferous takes on Steven Avery's innocence or guilt, I found this piece by Tony Frye on to rather concisely compile some angles to think about. (Both of the above contain more overt spoilers than I've included.)

At the end of the day, or I guess week, I believe I benefited from watching Making a Murderer; even if I can't quite call it brilliant television and found it a good deal overextended compared to similar documentaries, it was worthwhile to again witness how the authorities we are supposed to trust can seemingly act quite unjustly.

But beyond the specifics here--and regardless of the accused's complicity or lack thereof, it's obviously tragic that a young woman wound up dead; any possibility that the "system" had anything directly to do with it is still hard for me to digest--Making a Murderer didn't really reveal all that much I didn't already know.

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