Beyond A Reasonable Doubt: Why MAKING A MURDERER Isn’t A Whodunnit

Steven Avery's guilt or innocence is beside the point.

The backlash against Netflix’s Making A Murderer has begun. The ten part documentary series debuted over the holidays and quickly captured the imagination of a nation hooked on true crime stories. Steven Avery, who spent 18 years in prison for rape before being exonerated by DNA, ended up being accused of murdering Teresa Halbach soon after his release. The sticky part: the very county and cops who had railroaded him into his first conviction were involved in his murder case, and he was in the middle of suing them for a not insubstantial sum. Along the way the state’s net picked up Avery’s cousin, an intellectually challenged 16 year old named Brendan Dassey who confessed to all sorts of made up stuff thinking it would get him back to class in time to turn in his homework.

The series is told from the point of view of Avery’s defense, who claim the man was framed for Halbach’s murder; the backlash comes as prosecutors have started a media campaign to point out evidence against Avery Making A Murderer omitted. Were we fooled by the show? Did the filmmakers present a slanted version of the case? Is Steven Avery actually a killer?

Here’s the truth: none of that matters, because Making A Murderer isn’t a whodunnit (and more than that, documentaries do not - and perhaps should not - have to be objective). It’s a procedural that shows how someone - whether they are guilty or innocent - can be railroaded by a system with insufficient and malfunctioning checks and balances. The show doesn’t focus on who killed Teresa Halbach, it focuses on whether Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey got fair trials. And I can’t imagine how anyone thinks they did.

It’s easy to understand why so many viewers keyed into Making A Murderer as a whodunnit; after all, the true story includes twists and turns so ridiculous that you wouldn’t include them in an episode of Law & Order. From the cops refusing to investigate any other suspects to the involvement of police who should have recused themselves from the investigation to the coerced Dassey confession to the admittance of evidence whose provenance was questionable at best, the show gives us one holy shit moment after another. The show works as perfect binging material - what the hell is going to happen next? - but it also works perfectly as longform storytelling. Part of what filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi are doing is showing us the slow motion nightmare of being railroaded; the show’s length allows us to experience that swimming through molasses feeling of impending, inevitable doom hurtling towards us. As a viewing experience Making A Murderer is exhausting, and each episode only compounds the deep feeling of unfairness and of a system that is Kafka-esque in its surreal devotion to fucking its favorite suspect over. Moreover, the show wades into the human fallout of the whole process, showing us the way an unfair trial can devastate many lives all at once.

To experience all of that is to want to know who really dunnit, to figure out the source of this intense injustice. It's just a human reaction to all the misery and unfairness. Many people have expressed frustration that Making A Murderer doesn’t spend time going after other suspects - Halbach’s brother or her roommate or her ex or those two hunting buddies - but that isn’t what Demos and Ricciardi are doing. They’re using this case to show us a system that is stacked against the defendant in every possible way, from the cost of the trial to the sympathies of the judge and jury, and to force us to examine what a fair trial truly means.

Which is why Avery’s guilt is beside the point, and why the show pivots away from him in the back half towards Brendan Dassey, who is clearly innocent. Avery and his case, with its byzantine relationships and dodgy evidence, give us the backbone of the story. Poor Brendan Dassey, who doesn’t know what ‘inconsistent’ means, gives us its heart.

The US justice system is based on the ideal that everyone deserves a fair trial. This predates the Revolution itself - Founding Father John Adams (successfully) defended the British soldiers who opened fire in the Boston Massacre. His reasoning was simple: all people deserve good counsel. It doesn’t matter if someone clearly did it or not; the system should take an impartial, dispassionate look at all of the available evidence and make a decision based on that, not based on prejudice, ‘common sense’ (which is so rarely actually sensical) or appearances. That’s why circumstantial evidence is so shitty - just because you look like you did it doesn’t always mean you did it. The system is dedicated (or should be dedicated) to defending both society and those who society has fingered.

I do wish that the omitted evidence had been included in the show. I don’t find most of it that decisive - some of it is hearsay, some of it is circumstantial, some of it could have been planted, just as the car keys clearly were -  but I think that by muddying up the question of Avery’s innocence the show could have actually made its point harder. It’s a nuanced point - that even a guilty man deserves a fair trial - but it’s a vital one. It’s the cornerstone of our entire justice system. And I think that the rest of this evidence sheds light on the larger truth of the situation: the cops honestly believed Avery did it, and they would do whatever it takes - including planting Teresa Halbach’s keys in his home, including moving her car to his auto yard - to prove it. The burden of proof is high, and the state clearly overreached here, which is just as wrong and evil when done to a guilty man as when it’s done to an innocent one. It reminds me of a Bill Maher joke from the time of the OJ Simpson verdict: 'The LAPD is the only police department so incompetent that they couldn't frame a guilty man.” It’s the sort of situation that leaves us feeling like a double injustice has happened.

More than that, the show had Dassey as the truly innocent man, the one guy you sense even prosecutors think didn’t do it. From his coerced confession to the lawyer who clearly wanted him convicted, Dassey’s story is the heartbreaker and the place where we should be focusing our more emotional anger. Avery’s story is where we should be focusing our intellectual anger.

The way viewers (and the media) keyed into the whodunnit angle of Making A Murderer reminds me of Serial. That podcast started off correctly - much of the first episode is focused on the idea that memory is inherently unreliable, and it questions what kind of a role memory can and should play in a trial. But as the show went on both the audience and the host got wrapped up in the micro question of whether or not Adnan Syed was guilty, and everybody lost sight of the macro questions about memory and recall. As a result Serial sputtered to an unsatisfying end, unable to suss out the truth in any meaningful way.

Making A Murderer handles this better, I think, and it weathers the obsession with whodunnit status. Watch the show again and disengage from the question of who killed Teresa Halbach. Engage with the question of whether the state gave Steven Avery a fair trial. Engage with the question of just what ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ that famous jury instruction, means, and whether anyone can truly say that Steven Avery was shown to have killed Halbach beyond a reasonable doubt. Engage with the question of whether the defense introduced reasonable doubt, engage with the question of whether the prosecution introduced falsified evidence. When everyone realizes the show was never about Steven Avery’s innocence but the state’s guilt the backlash will evaporate.

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