Lessons we learn from ‘Making a Murderer’

The criminal justice system is fallible, as the controversial documentary explores.
The criminal justice system is fallible, as the controversial documentary explores.

By Christopher Zoukis

The true-crime documentary Making a Murderer has been making huge headlines since being released on Netflix last month. As you most likely already know, the controversial documentary tells a sad, tangled story about Steve Avery, who’s currently serving a life sentence without possibility of parole in a Wisconsin prison for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach, a photographer for AutoTrader magazine.

The investigation and prosecution of the Halbach murder was highly unusual on several fronts, but most namely because of Avery’s history: in 1985 he was wrongly convicted of rape and attempted murder and served 18 years in a state prison before being exonerated on DNA evidence and released. 

So viewers understandably came to the program with some sympathy for the accused in the new crime, knowing he had suffered an earlier miscarriage of justice. 

This has squarely raised the show’s first lesson: the criminal justice system is fallible, and not every convict is guilty of the crimes listed on the rap sheet. And the sad reality is that it doesn’t just happen on television. I hear these stories almost every day.  

Avery, who ran a tumbledown auto salvage yard on the outskirts of Manitowoc, had called the company saying he had a car to sell; he requested Halbach by name to photograph it. She went reluctantly (recalling on a previous occasion Avery had emerged from his trailer wearing only a towel); within days, her car, Palm Pilot and burned bones found on or near Avery’s property.

Through the ensuing investigation and prosecution, another lesson emerged: the workings of the criminal justice system are often unattractive and sometimes unfair. Police can be overbearing, and defense lawyers can be inept or worse (this lesson was driven home by scenes like police interrogations of 16-year-old Brendan Dassey, Avery’s learning-impaired nephew, without either a parent or defense lawyer being present. (Dassey is now serving time after being separately convicted as an accomplice in the murder.)

Avery’s lawyers put on a generally spirited defense, but had to overcome a mountain of evidence: some of Halbach’s burned bones were found in a fire pit on Avery’s property, blood stains revealed by DNA testing to be from Avery turned up inside Halbach’s car, and police found her car keys in Avery’s bedroom.

Avery’s lawyers offered a defense reminiscent of the one advanced by O.J. Simpson’s “dream team” – the bloodstains, car keys and other incriminating evidence was planted by the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department to frame Avery. Their motive? After being released from prison in 2003, Avery had brought a $36 million lawsuit against Manitowoc County, including some members of the sheriff’s department, for his wrongful conviction.

Viewers of the series have hotly debated whether its creators played fairly in what they chose to depict, and to exclude; both the defense and prosecution maintain important information for their side was omitted from the programs. (As it now stands, Avery has tried unsuccessfully to challenge his conviction, but recently filed a new appeal).

Some infuriated fans of the show have denounced police and the prosecutor in virulent terms, and at last report, more than 300,000 people have signed petitions demanding President Barack Obama pardon Avery. (It’s worth noting Obama can only pardon persons convicted of federal crimes, not state crimes like those in this case.) 

At the end of the day, there are many morals to this story – but the overriding lesson of Making a Murderer may be that many people unfamiliar with the criminal justice system don’t like what they see when exposed to even an incomplete version of it.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com