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Making a Murderer

In 1985, small-time criminal and full-time Wisconsin redneck Steven Avery was arrested, convicted, and imprisoned for a brutal sexual assault he did not commit in rural Manitowoc County. Eighteen years later, based on DNA evidence and the work of the Wisconsin Innocence Project, he was exonerated and released. Then things started to get interesting.

[Spoiler Kitten Says: This review provides an overview of the material covered by this documentary, and alludes to specific plot-points up to episode four. It should be safe reading for someone considering watching the documentary.]

Making a Murderer, a new ten-episode documentary series from Netflix, follows Steven’s case from his initial conviction through his exoneration (episode one) and then—most importantly—into the second big criminal case in which he was involved: the accusation that he raped and murdered Teresa Halbach just two years after getting out of prison.

Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos first became interested in Steven’s case in 2005, after reading about the former Innocence Project poster boy’s fall from grace. What started as a quick field trip from NYC to WI with a borrowed camera became a ten-year project. Ricciardi describes the surprise: “What we hadn’t anticipated was the depth and breadth of what we would uncover along the way.”

That breadth and depth has little to do with Steven himself. The real focus of this documentary is the complex, wildly unfair, and possibly corrupt justice system against which Steven must battle. This is a documentary with a clear bias in favor of Steven and his attorneys, and against the Manitowoc County and Wisconsin State police, sheriffs, and prosecutors who seem determined to put Steven away.

Is it their incompetence? A long-standing grudge against Steven and his family, who run an auto-salvage yard in a county filled with farmers? Hatred of a family that are clearly from the Wisconsin equivalent of the wrong side of the tracks? A vast conspiracy that reaches almost to the top? And if Steven didn’t kill Teresa Halbach, who did? Some of those questions are left unanswered; others are answered only obliquely. As the documentary has no narration, we’re only occasionally told exactly what to think, but certain biases and assumptions do become clear.

Whatever the true story behind Steven’s possible complicity in the 2005 rape and murder, the tales of those who get caught in the crossfire make this documentary riveting. In particular, Brendan Avery, Steven’s nephew, is clearly a sacrificial lamb: the filmmakers include extensive clips of his interviews with the police, and the only logical conclusion one can draw from them is that Brendan is rather slow, easily swayed, and horribly confused. That combination did not work out well for him; the fourth episode had me simultaneously gripping a pillow and nearly shouting at the screen.

If Brendan is—aside from Teresa herself, of course—the victim in this story, Dean Strang, one of Steven’s defense attorneys, is the moral compass. My own bias is to never believe lawyers when they’re on the job, especially when they’re pleading their client’s case, but Strang is either an excellent actor or a truly intelligent man forced to confront, for the first time, the depravity and inhumanity of the justice system’s self-preservation machine.

The result is ten hours of tense, atmospheric, angst. The filmmakers include copious amounts of information: interviews with participants, including the Avery family (access to Steven was limited by the sheriff to phone interviews), Steven’s and Brendan’s lawyers, and various interested parties. In addition to moody shots of flying geese and aerial shots of snow-covered Wisconsin, they include numerous clips from local news, too, that show just how much power the media have to influence the outcome of a case.

Portions of each episode could, I suspect, have been trimmed, but there’s something to be said for an immersive ten-hour binge that forces you, like the Averys, to wait for resolution. If you do decide to dive into the series, I recommend not Googling the people involved: force yourself to, like them, wait for an answer. It's worth it.

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

1 comment:

  1. Slight correction: Steven's nephew is called Brendan Dassey, not Brendan Avery.
    I am both shocked and compelled by this documentary series. Am not sure if Avery is fully innoncent, but there is no doubt there has been a huge wrong commited to both him and Brendan.
    Strang is indeed a compelling voice. As is his co-counsel, Buting.
    Thanks for this great review.


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