Sarah M. Robinson is a former sergeant in the U.S. Army and a practiced social worker. She is the co-author of Pirates, Prisoners, and Lepers: Lessons from Life Outside the Law (Potomac Books, 2015).
Netflix’s ten-episode documentary Making a Murderer, is great TV. It is engrossing and thought provoking. The series follows the case of Steven Avery, who is a poor man convicted, as DNA later proves, wrongfully of raping a woman in 1985. Before he is cleared he has spent eighteen years in prison. It is very hard not to be sympathetic towards a person who has faced such injustice but does it have anything to do with the other story that Making a Murderer seems to be telling?
Once free from prison, Avery brings suit against those who wrongfully imprisoned him, for $36,000,000. Only days after his first deposition, Avery was arrested for the murder of Teresa Halbach. The Netflix version of the story soon has viewers trying to sort through the array of evidence and potential police misconduct until the viewers are asked to believe that it was the police who did the killing and are framing Avery. As I said, this is great TV.
Television and the courts have one strong similarity: the evidence presented is almost always evidence that has been carefully selected. Rarely does what is presented represent the whole story. For Netflix the goal is to sell a product that viewers enjoy. For the courts there are several factors that come into play, for example depending on the wording of the statute a jury might never hear about a defendant’s history of severe mental illness. Or the judge might rule that a crucial piece of the prosecution’s case might be too prejudicial. She is not saying that it is false or irrelevant; she is saying that it would be so strong that the jury might not be able to get past it and weigh all the other evidence.
All the evidence was not in the show and all the evidence was not presented to the jury. Examples of evidence left out of the show are numerous but let me offer a few. Halbach had told her boss that every time she went to Avery’s property on a job assignment; he would be naked except for a towel. Avery called Halbach repeatedly, on the day she disappeared, twice using *67 to disguise his number. A bullet with Halbach’s DNA on it proved to be from Avery’s gun. And how about this one, Avery purchased handcuffs and leg irons like the ones described as being used on Halbach only three weeks before the occurrence. Why were these details left out? They sure don’t help build the outrage that Netflix sought to build. Are these the behaviors of an innocent man?
For the courts, are they presenting the whole story? A great deal of the case is based on the testimony derived from the sworn confession of the accomplice, Brendan Dassey. Dassey provided a detailed recounting of the horrors perpetrated by himself and Avery on Halbach. And Netfilx wants you to know that Dassey has an I.Q. of seventy and made that confession without a lawyer. But, does that make the confession any less true? The level of detail in the confession is impressive and when you remember that this is coming from a young man of limited intellectual capacity doesn’t that make it even more credible?
So what is the show about? Is it about police at their best? Clearly not. Is it about two innocent men being framed by dangerous men who hide behind their badge to brutalize a young woman? No it is not about that either. Is it about building a compelling story that draws in viewers? Absolutely.
-Sarah M. Robinson