“Making a Murderer” Is an Indictment of the U.S. Criminal Justice System

Some spoilers.

After watching Netflix’s ten-part documentary, binge-ready, blood-boiling Making a Murderer, one can head to Google or reddit/r/makingamurderer or a number of other forums to discuss theories, lash out at Ken Kratz and others portrayed in the documentary, sign a Change.org or White House petition or be one of the minority voices asserting Steven Avery’s guilt, but in all of that, there is something we ought not to loose sight of:

This Avery case is compelling for a variety of reasons, but it’s more than a single-act play. It’s a dramatic microcosm of the overall United States criminal justice system from the faulty use of science and so-called expert witnesses, to the cozy relationship between the prosecutors and the police, the prosecutors and the judge, the bias of the jury, the over-reliance on witness testimony and circumstantial evidence versus physical evidence, coerced confessions and the list goes on and on.

Making a Murderer is about Steve Avery; he is its central character, but the other central character also on trial is the United States criminal justice system and I just worry that in focusing so much on Avery, which I’m not opposed to re-evaluating the fairness or lack thereof of his trial, we lose sight of that broader indictment the film-makers strove to stress through 10 years of investigative and exhaustive reporting and compiling of information.

The Washington Post had an article about a year ago from conservative-libertarian Judge Alex Kozinski discussing 12 myths we buy into to believe our criminal justice system is fair and just, but why in actuality our criminal justice system is flawed. Here is the link to see the full reasoning, but here are the 12 myths he offered. Again, keep in mind, these are all things we generally buy into as reliable, but he offers ample evidence at each point that there’s reason to doubt that:

1. Eyewitnesses are highly reliable.
2. Fingerprint evidence is foolproof.
3. Other types of forensic evidence are scientifically proven and therefore infallible.
4. DNA evidence is infallible.
5. Human memories are reliable.
6. Confessions are infallible because innocent people never confess.
7. Juries follow instructions.
8. Prosecutors play fair.
9. The prosecution is at a substantial disadvantage because it must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
10. Police are objective in their investigations.
11. Guilty pleas are conclusive proof of guilt.
12. Long sentences deter crime.

Not mentioned here that I would also add is how its not unusual for a judge that convicted someone to also then here that convicted person’s appeal and give a subsequent ruling. The theory behind that being that that judge knows the details of the case intimately and therefore, it makes sense for him or her to rule on it. However, the bias inherent in that way of doing it should be readily obvious.

Moreover, the contradictory way someone can be convicted. For instance, the prosecution’s theory for where Steven Avery killed Teresa Halbach is in his trailer. In the same prosecutor’s theory (Ken Kratz) for where Brendan Dassey helped to kill Teresa Halbach is in Steven Avery’s bedroom. That these are conflicting theories doesn’t seem to matter. Nor does it seem to matter that Avery was not found guilty of mutilating Teresa’s body, but Dassey was.

Also not mentioned here is the so-called jailhouse snitch, i.e., an informant that testifies that the accused said such and such while behind bars. It should be readily apparent why that’s also a dubious way to pin guilt on the accused.

There’s also the issue of the incredibly long time some accused persons await a trial, i.e., these people are sitting in prison for one year, two years, three years and in some cases, up to seven years, without having actually been formally convicted of a crime — only accused of one.

Finally, there’s the issue of the court of public opinion. I don’t see how Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey could have received a fair trial in the state of Wisconsin after that inflammatory and largely fabricated press conference by Ken Kratz based on the coerced confession of Brendan Dassey as to how they killed Teresa Halbach in gruesome fashion. That automatically poisons the jury pool. That automatically pushes the public to forget innocent before proven guilty and it pushes the public to accept punitive response measures.

What about juveniles? In the United States, you’re not considered an adult until you’re 18 years of age. And yet, far too many under-age individuals charged and then convicted a crime, they are tried and sentenced as adults and serve long sentences thereafter.

And none of what I’ve mentioned even addresses the racial bias, like how black people get longer sentences for similar crimes or are more likely to face the death penalty if the victim is white. Which we could also get into the nitty-gritty of the cruel and unusual punishment that is the death penalty, another facet of our screwed up criminal justice system. There’s many, many facets to cover.

Much of this, too, is only covering the part up to and through a trial and the appeals process (and I didn’t even mention how most cases don’t even make it to trial and the issues therein). There’s the whole back end we could discuss in terms of our insanely terrible prisons and the lack of transparency and accountability involved there.

Or the further back end on two fronts: 1.) The issue felons have with acquiring their life back after being released from prison in terms of job opportunities, voting and gun rights and generally acclimating back to life, especially after harsh and inappropriately long sentences. 2.) The redress of the wrongfully convicted. There doesn’t seem to be a standard way in which to pay back someone for the years lost in prison (not that there really is a price tag I think you can adequately place upon that), nor is there usually any appreciable accountability for the prosecutors, the district attorneys, the politicians, the judges and the police that helped to wrongfully convict a person.

There’s many, many more layers I could spend time unpacking, but I think this is a good overview of the issues plaguing our criminal justice system that only until recently have begun to be questioned. We got to this point — the aforementioned issues and the largest incarceration rate in the world — by bi-partisan political support and a public all too willing to look the other way and/or surrender coveted rights and/or demonize and dehumanize criminal wrongdoers.

It’s decades in the making, so it won’t be easy to reverse course, but starting with awareness of the problem (and as such, have honest conversations instead of relying on myth and fictions about what we perceive the justice system to be vs. how it actually operates) and then going forward with reform, we can at least begin to turn the tide.

I readily admit I binged Making a Murderer and have since been quite obsessed with the facets of this particular case, but I’m also passionate about the criminal justice system more broadly and its problems therein. I would be doing that passion a disservice to loose sight of what the documentary series ought to be imparting upon viewers.

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