(ALERT: SPOILERS AHEAD) By now, much of the binge-watching public has seen the Netflix documentary, Making of a Murderer, and also by now, much of that same binge-watching public has become appalled at the underhanded, unethical, downright illegal tactics of the Manitowoc sheriff’s office in Wisconsin. However, I think it is becoming clear that in trying to heighten emotional tension and investment, the documentarians blurred the truth and manipulated the viewing public in a way wholly inappropriate to their profession and “documentary” purpose.
For those unfamiliar, Making of a Murderer follows the life and trial of Steve Avery, a man who was falsely convicted of rape, and, shortly after his release after 18 years in prison, was arrested and convicted for a murder the documentary progressively shows there is reasonable doubt that he did commit. It also tells the story of his nephew, Brendan Dassey, whom it appears the sheriffs office manipulated into confessing (he was a 16 year-old at the time, with significant mental challenges) in order to solidify their case against Steven. The documentary is about how justice can be so perverted by blind, baseless hatred and how poor individuals fighting the “system” are at a deep, almost insurmountable disadvantage. It is a tragic, heartrending story and the documentary as a whole is an incredible and compelling piece of filmmaking.
Perhaps a little too compelling. It is clear from the start that the documentarians are trying to generate empathic feelings for an righteous anger on behalf of Steven. He is presented as most likely innocent, and the documentary essentially accuses the sheriff’s department of planting evidence and ignoring other possible suspects in order to convict Steven (Brendan is a more and less difficult case). Everyone not in the Avery family, even down to the jury and the judge deciding his sentence, seemed wholly intent on convicting Steve Avery and Brendan Dassey for murder. The documentary would have us believe that the sheriff department harbored a baseless hatred for Steven that both blinded them to their duties and incited them to seek unwarranted vengeance rather than justice.
I was completely swept up into this whirlwind of shock at the miscarriage of justice… until the sentencing of Steven Avery. Something just didn’t feel right about the judge proclaiming that Steve, a man who had spent 18 of the last 20 years of his life in prison for a crime he had been proven not to commit, deserved life in prison because his murder conviction is the latest in a string of (and I paraphrase) “clearly escalating crimes.” What crimes? The man had been in prison, for a rape he didn’t commit. I had a hard time believing that hatred of someone just because his family is dirt-poor would lead a judge to sentence a man to life in jail. There had to be more to the story the filmmakers were not presenting.
My suspicions got worse after my husband and I finished the last episode and he started poking around on the internet (while I fumed and spent the last of my angry tears cleaning up the kitchen and killing the occasional cockroach with a ferocity and fury never before seen in the Hawaiian islands). What he found told a bit more about the story than the documentarians had let on.
According to the documentary, Steven Avery is a simple, unintelligent, poor man with only a light record of offenses (guilty only of stealing a cheese sandwich) who had given the law enforcement of Manitowoc County no reason to hate or conspire against him.
According to internet sources, Steven Avery committed an unspeakable act of animal cruelty and had been accused of rape and child molestation several times without being convicted.
What is significant about this omission in the documentary is not that is has any bearing on his murder trial. It absolutely does not. I even understand, to a certain extent, the filmmakers’ decision not to delve into Steven’s blemished past: if viewers saw Steven as the people of Manitowoc County saw him, then the impact of the injustice delivered to him at the trial would have been dulled. The filmmakers wanted the emphasis to be on the murder trial and the tactics of the sheriff’s department. In addition, a person’s past should not be used to determine guilt or innocence for a specific act (though it certainly suggests a certain probability). No one “deserves” to be falsely convicted of murder, no matter his or her past actions.
If someone in the Manitowoc sheriff’s office did plant evidence and did try to get Steven Avery convicted for a murder they knew he did not commit, then that is a heinous act and one that should be heavily punished in its own right. Regardless of Steven’s guilt in other areas, he should not be set up as a murderer.
However, after reading other accounts of Steve’s past, it seems like there is good reason to reject, in part, the documentary’s depiction of the sheriff’s office’s actions and intentions. While not excusing any illegal and unethical behavior, I can absolutely understand a desire to put Steven in prison, and even to want him to be the murderer (a desire strong enough to blind them to the reality of poor evidence) so he could finally be sent him away for good. What if Steven actually had raped several women and had molested children? The motivations of the sheriff’s department very well could have been, in part, born out of deep concern for the public. A perversion of justice and misuse of the court system is not the way to go about it, but now the question of “Why the hell do they hate Steven so much?” has a very rational and dare I say almost understandable explanation. I would not blame the sheriff’s office for wanting desperately to get Steven locked up and away from anyone he was known to harm. If Steven has the past that internet accounts claim, I share that desire. Deeply.
I haven’t even touched on the subject of Brendan, and I am not quite sure how to talk about him. I don’t know how much of the documentary I can believe, but from what they showed and from all other appearances, he is a pure victim in this story. There is no excuse, no matter how badly you want someone to go to jail for his crimes (real or imagined), to send an innocent, mentally incapacitated teenager to near-life in prison for a murder he clearly did not commit. Brendan deserves every ounce of pity and help the public has to offer.
Steven, however, is not a pure victim. At least, it appears he is not a victim the documentary would like viewers to believe. And that is what also angers me now. The documentary model purports to show truth and reality, to string together the pieces of a real-life story that highlights something noteworthy about an event, a situation, a system, a person. A documentary purports to tell something true, something fairly unbiased. The Making of a Murderer documentarians seem not to have done this and if I knew that internet accounts were true, I’d be angry at a manipulation of viewer’s trust and of the forms of storytelling they used.
After 8+ hours of watching the story about the Halbach murder, I feel almost completely neutral about Steve’s situation. By all accounts, he is not a good man and could in fact be a truly terrible man. I am angry that he had to spend 18 years in prison for a crime of rape he clearly did not commit, but I also feel an almost negating anger that he has not served time for equally terrible crimes he seems like to have committed. Perhaps in a perverted way he is getting justice for his life and actions, though not for any specific act. I don’t know. What a failing of the documentarians and the justice system. What I do suspect, is that this documentary perverted truth just as it was trying to tell the story of perverted justice. A measure of my anger and disgust is now directed towards them, as well.