DTCI: ‘Making a Murderer’ influences perception of judiciary

January 27, 2016

dimmitt-lauren-dtciSome of you may have spent the holiday season binge-watching the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer.” If watching a 10-hour true-crime documentary was not how you celebrated the holidays, you likely know somebody who watched the documentary or, at the very least, have seen articles, comments and sometimes not-so-friendly debates about it on social media. “Making a Murderer” quickly became one of Netflix’s biggest hits and has been a popular topic of debate among friends and colleagues. Society appears to be fascinated with this type of true-crime story.

If you have been in isolation for the last month and have not heard of “Making a Murderer,” please note that the following summary includes a few spoilers. The documentary follows Steven Avery, a resident of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, who was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault in 1985. Avery served 18 years in prison before he was exonerated by DNA evidence in 2003 with the assistance of the Innocence Project. After he was released from prison, Avery filed a civil lawsuit against Manitowoc County, its former sheriff, and its former district attorney. Avery’s attorneys were in the midst of taking depositions in the civil case when Avery was arrested for the murder of Teresa Halbach, a photographer for Auto Trader Magazine.

“Making a Murderer” immerses viewers in the investigation and prosecution of Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, including interrogations, pretrial motions, trial preparation and two jury trials. After a one-month jury trial, Avery was convicted of the murder of Halbach and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Dassey was convicted of murder in a separate jury trial.

Regardless of Avery’s guilt or innocence, the influence of the show concerns this author. In the month after “Making a Murderer” premiered on Netflix, more than 129,000 Americans signed a petition in which they requested President Obama to pardon Avery and Dassey for their convictions in connection to the murder of Halbach. The petition states that “[b]ased on the evidence in the Netflix documentary series ‘Making a Murderer,’ the justice system embarrassingly failed both men” and “is a black mark on the justice system as a whole.” The petition further states that there “is clear evidence that the Manitowoc County sheriff’s department used improper methods to convict both Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey.”

The “clear evidence” referred to by the petitioners is a small fraction of the total evidence. Although the documentary is extensive, it certainly does not paint a complete picture of the trial or the underlying case. There are three reasons for this. First, it is impossible for a 10-hour documentary to fully capture all evidence presented during two lengthy jury trials. Second, the story is told from the points of view of Avery, Dassey and their defense counsel. The documentary was designed to leave viewers questioning Avery’s guilt, as well as the actions of law enforcement and the district attorney. Finally, “Making a Murderer” is the result of strategic decisions by the show’s producers. The producers handpicked the evidence they included in the documentary. These decisions were likely based, at least partially, on considerations that are irrelevant to Avery’s guilt, such as entertainment value.

Some viewers recognize that the documentary may not tell both sides of the story and take to the Internet after completing the series to research the case and make a more educated decision regarding Avery’s guilt. Others, however, appear to trust the documentary’s producers wholeheartedly as demonstrated by the petition to pardon Avery and Dassey. Thus, producers of “Making a Murderer” and other true-crime stories have the ability to influence the public’s perception of an individual’s guilt or innocence, as well as the actions of the attorneys involved, well after a verdict is reached and regardless of the evidence presented in the courtroom.•

Lauren Dimmitt is an associate in the Evansville office of Wooden McLaughlin and is a member of the Defense Trial Counsel of Indiana. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.