In the past few weeks, it is fair to say that Making a Murderer has become a national obsession. News programs have been talking about it. Celebrities have been tweeting about it. Netflix has been loving the success of it. And middle-aged moms like me have been folding laundry veeeerrrry sloooowwwwwly in order to squeeze a few more minutes out of our busy schedules to watch in horrified disbelief. It really is good television, if good television means that you will send your kids to the basement to play video games a little longer just so that you can see what happens next. Not that this happened at my house, but I’m just saying that I could understand if it did happen, somewhere.
I admit that I posted a couple of comments about the show on my own Facebook page, fueling interest among my friends, because Making a Murderer is the kind of documentary that you JUST WANT TO TALK ABOUT. And since my husband could not keep up with my break-neck pace in watching it last week, I wanted to find out which of my closest friends on social media were on top of it. (I might note that Netflix and I hadn’t really bonded prior to this viewing experience, but it is a good place to find other interesting documentaries like Blackfish and Fed Up. Fortunately, most documentaries don’t require the ten-hour commitment that Making a Murderer does.)
So what is this Making a Murderer about, anyway? In short, a man was once convicted of a crime that he did not commit, serving 18 years in prison before DNA evidence proved his innocence. Not long after his release, he was arrested for the murder of a photographer who had last been seen on his property. The documentary follows his defense team through their preparation for trial and their presentation of evidence. It also reveals details about the investigation into his teenaged nephew’s alleged involvement in the murder of this woman. The documentary raises questions about whether the county, feeling embarrassed by their mishandling of the first case in which this defendant was wrongfully imprisoned, might have bent the rules, so to speak, in order to guarantee a victory for the prosecution in his murder trial and thereby vindicate themselves for their previous mistakes.
Since the docuseries has become so popular, rebuttals to the story shared by the filmmakers are also popping up and spreading like wildfire. I have listened to part of Rebutting a Murderer by Dan O’Donnell (available on iHeartRadio), and I have also read this rebuttal on The Huffington Post. The rebuttals share the other side of the story, details from the prosecution’s perspective, some of which were excluded from Making a Murderer, and many of which point to the defendant’s guilt. They paint a picture of the accused as a volatile and dangerous man who clearly deserves to be in prison.
And maybe he does.
But in the fuss over whether or not the documentary is biased (and it is), I think we are missing the point. The bigger conversation here. The reason why a mom like me could not turn off the television while I was cooking pasta fagioli because I had to see how the story would unfold.
It’s not that I see the man at the center of this controversy as a model of good citizenship. It’s not even that I’m convinced of his innocence. It’s that he used the same criminal justice system that I may have to use someday, and, WOW, a lot of things went very wrong there.
Sure, there are people with a chip on their shoulder who ignored the bias and watched Making a Murderer for confirmation that the justice system is a mess. Yes, there are others who viewed it who think they are legal experts because they have a season of Law and Order saved on the DVR. But most viewers are smarter than that. They noticed that the prosecution, for the most part, wasn’t talking directly to the filmmakers like the defense was. They knew that they were hearing more in defense of the defendant than in support of the prosecution. They know good, honest, selfless people who work as police officers, attorneys, and judges, and they support those people when others don’t. And they still aren’t sure exactly what really happened in this case.
But that doesn’t make the documentary any less fascinating.
The primary argument of the rebuttals seems to be that the defendant is much more dangerous than the man that the docuseries presents him to be, and that may be true. However, the filmmakers DO share some details about the defendant that reveal questionable ethics. A police report shows that he once threw a cat in a fire, for goodness sake. He wrote angry, threatening letters to his wife from prison. And those things are IN the documentary. In fact, they led me to having a conversation with my own children (who did not watch the documentary, so please don’t panic) about how difficult it is to prove your innocence when you have developed a reputation in the community for creating trouble. (It seemed like a teachable moment.) The reality is that knowing what I know from the documentary alone, I wouldn’t trust this guy. But the bigger question raised by the documentary is not about him. The bigger question is, who CAN you trust?
Because I want to believe that police and investigators always follow every reasonable lead in an investigation.
Because I want to believe that anyone with a conflict of interests is smart enough to remove themselves from any involvement that might jeopardize the truth from being heard and believed in a case.
Because I want to believe that a public defender would do his best for every defendant and work for the good of his own client.
Because I want to believe that there are protocols for working with juveniles with intellectual challenges so that they are treated fairly during an investigation.
Because I want to believe that the goal of the justice system is to find the truth rather than to close a case without certainty.
And, honestly, I still believe that most of these ideas are true – most of the time. I still believe in and support all of the honest police officers, and hard-working attorneys, and selfless judges who face very difficult decisions every day. But this guy did go to prison for 18 years for a crime that he didn’t commit, so sometimes there are flaws in our system. Why is it wrong to ask questions about how we, as a society, can fix that?
The documentary also raises interesting points about what is and what isn’t admissible during a trial, what prosecutors can say publicly before a trial, how financial resources may impact the quality of legal representation, and how personalities can be more influential than facts when a jury deliberates. These are issues that most of us don’t think about much.
Unless we are on trial.
The real reason that we are squirming uncomfortably in the safety and comfort of our living rooms while watching Making a Murderer is only loosely tied to whether or not we believe this particular defendant is being honest. The reason our stomachs are in knots is because we aren’t 100% sure that we could prove OURSELVES innocent if we were falsely accused of a crime.
And if that isn’t scary and worthy of a discussion, I’m not sure what is.