AP“They had the evidence back then that I didn't do it, but nobody said anything.”
This Steven Avery line from the first episode of Netflix’s new true-crime show “Making a Murderer” is at the heart of the docuseries. 10 years in the making and curated from over 700 hours of footage, the documentary and its directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos tell the harrowing story of Avery, his nephew Brendan Dassey, and the American justice system.
If you were a news junkie back in 2005 or lived anywhere near Manitowoc, Wisconsin, you most likely remember the case. Steven Avery was released from prison in 2003 after DNA evidence cleared him of rape in 1985 with help from the Wisconsin Innocence Project, a group that seeks to exonerate wrongfully convicted people. After 18 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, Avery sued Manitowoc County for $36 million as well as the former sheriff and district attorney who put him in jail using questionable tactics.
Two years later and with the lawsuit still on the line, Avery was arrested, this time for the sensational murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach who police believed was last seen in the Avery Auto Salvage yard around October 31, 2005.
“Making a Murderer” focuses on this later case and the media firestorm that erupted after the Wisconsin Innocence Project poster boy was arrested again. Avery maintained his innocence and his family staunchly believed he was set up, potentially as a part of a larger conspiracy by the county and police officers who had been deposed in his lawsuit.
The plot only thickens from there. Some of the characters seem cut from a crime novel: Suspicious cops, seemingly corrupt lawyers, and Atticus Finch-like defense attorneys. Others — from Avery's elderly parents to his nephew Dassey — are so heartbreakingly real that you want to turn off your TV and cry.
The entire documentary is currently available to stream on Netflix, and is being compared to the first season of the podcast “Serial” or HBO’s “The Jinx.” While there are obvious parallels, I would argue “Making a Murderer” is even better.
Not only are there no distracting recreations of events or moments when the show’s storytellers insert themselves into the narrative, but “Making a Murderer” won’t make you feel guilty for watching — only drained. Thanks to the press conferences, interviews, crime scene footage, and legal documents, the show feels less like entertainment and more like a disheartening but necessary look at class politics and the US court system. You likely won’t find anyone having a “Making a Murderer” finale party like there were with "Serial" or "The Jinx."
The show isn't without its fair share of criticism. Some have called the series biased towards the Avery family, and Ken Kratz, the original prosecutor in the Halbach case, told FOX 11 News the documentary only included "80 to 90 percent of the physical evidence" that tied Steven Avery to the murder. Since the documentary's premiere online, he said he has received threats.
The filmmakers disagree. "We believe the series is representative of what we witnessed," Demos told FOX 11. "The key pieces of the state's evidence are included in the series."
I won’t spoil all of the harrowing twists and turns in the case, from the involvement of Avery’s learning-impaired 16-year-old nephew Dassey to mutterings of jury misconduct, but there is one thing that resonates strongly before you’re even halfway through the series — the nagging question of what happens when your presumption of innocence is taken away.
In the United States, everyone has the right to an attorney, a jury of their peers, as well as the belief that you are innocent until proven guilty. But "Making a Murderer" proves just how easy it is to be convicted in the court of public opinion before you even get to trial.
"Most of what ails our criminal justice system lie in unwarranted certitude on the part of police officers and prosecutors and defense lawyers and judges and jurors that they're getting it right," one of Avery’s defense lawyers Dean Strang says in the documentary. “That they simply are right. Just a tragic lack of humility of everyone who participates in our criminal justice system.”
Even though the series is available to stream, you may find yourself tempted to look up everything about the case right away on Wikipedia or in news articles.
My advice? Don’t. You’ll want to watch the entire series until the bitter end.