Before I get stuck in, and in case the headline for this page doesn’t make it clear enough, this post contains spoilers from the entire series of Netflix’s Making A Murderer. While it is true crime and all the facts are in the public domain (not to mention updates appearing daily in newspapers, on TV, in blog posts and all over social media), I recommend you watch the entire show before reading what I have to say or searching out additional information. Read on, when you’re ready…
Oh, and if this looks too long (it is quite long), then just skip ahead and read the Sold A Story section, that’s the most important bit.
CONTEXT IS EVERYTHING
I, like millions of others, am currently obsessed by Making A Murderer, the new Netflix documentary series about Stephen Avery and Brendan Dassey, two men who have been convicted of the murder of Teresa Halbach on the basis of – as contended by the show – at the very best dubious evidence. True crime, it seems, is big business as this follows hot on the heels of possibly the two biggest media obsessions of the past year – Serial and The Jinx.
All of these cases have one thing in common – they wouldn’t be acceptable to an audience if they were presented as fiction. In Serial and Making a Murderer this is, at least in part, because of the lack of closure. There’s no finality or even clarity, but where that would be frustrating in fiction (and it is here, though for very different reasons), in these cases that leads to only greater obsessive behaviour with viewers eager to fill in the gaps and allowing them to fill the role of Poirot or Columbo all by themselves.
Serial was the diametric opposite of the CSI school of television crime, with all the technical evidence only clouding things further, with experts disagreeing on how to interpret ‘evidence’, with the memories of those involved having changed over time. There was no one damning piece of evidence and, ultimately, room for every viewer to have their own theory as to what had happened.
The Jinx, with the unusual story of a multi-millionaire seemingly thinking he had got away with multiple murders being caught accidentally confessing off-camera but on mic, conforms in many ways with a more traditional crime story with a piece of ‘conclusive’ evidence revealed at the last moment and then the climactic ‘you got me’ confession, but the journey that Robert Durst takes along the way, including a period living as a woman in relative squalor, barely seems plausible and would surely be laughed out of a writers’ room.
And finally, Making A Murderer, which features so many seemingly staggering decisions made by people at so many levels that it’s almost impossible to understand how any of these events could have happened in a 21st century western society. The twists and turns along the way beggar belief.
But this is a significant part of their appeal. Truth, so the cliche goes, is stranger than fiction and all three cases demonstrate that all too clearly. People love these series because they provide stories that fiction can never give us, and because they start conversations. These aren’t “Who shot JR?” or “Who shot Mr Burns?”, these are real stories we may never have closure on, and certainly that won’t be decided by a group of writers in a room arguing a satisfactory resolution out.
MAKING AN OPINION
So at this point I’m going to venture my opinion on the Avery/Dassey case, but I’m also going to stress that I’m not saying this is the truth. Everyone is entitled to their opinions and, at this point, yours is just as valid as mine, so if you disagree with me I’m not going to debate you on it.
So I feel pretty confident that Avery and Dassey are not guilty, but not 100%. But regardless of that, I believe the process that put them away was so flawed and, according to jurors both released from the trial and who served on the final jury, those deciding Avery’s fate in particular were so wedded to their pre-trial view that the trial cannot have been considered fair. I think the case, as presented in the documentary, offers far more than reasonable doubt.
But there’s a key phrase there – “as presented by the documentary”. The documentary makers were embedded with the Avery family and undoubtedly presented a story from the point of view that Avery and Dassey were innocent. While it was inevitable that the prosecution would have a different point of view given the implied accusations against them, I think we need to be careful when dismiss their claims. The filmmakers got to choose what they put in and could easily exclude anything which went against their narrative.
There are two pieces of ‘evidence’ Ken Kratz has stated were left out of the series, both of which seem potentially important. The first is the sweat-based DNA of Stephen Avery that was allegedly found on the latch of the hood of the SUV, and the second are the repeated phone calls made to Halbach in the lead up to her murder. The former was not addressed at all in the documentary, and it seems that some kind of theory should be presented about its existence.
The documentary does, briefly, address the second of these, with an implication that an ex-boyfriend or obsessed acquaintance was responsible. It’s not clear whether the prosecution used the phone calls as part of their evidence but if they did it seems pretty damning that the filmmakers decided to exclude them from the narrative they present.
All that said, the key fob which appeared months later with no DNA beyond Avery is highly suspicious. The fact that, in his summary at the end of the case Kratz seems to imply this was indeed planted, is only more alarming. The fact that no blood was found anywhere, that there was seemingly another burn site (although this wasn’t really explored in the series either), and the tampering with Avery’s 1985 blood sample all point away from Avery.
Finally, some people have said that Avery didn’t prove he was innocent, but that is not how trials work. The burden is on the prosecution to prove what did happen. An innocent man, inconveniently, may not have alibis in place.
DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
But as I said, it’s important not to dismiss the claims of the prosecution. We have seen one side of the story and it’s very easy to just arbitrarily decide that anything which doesn’t conform with our own preconceived views isn’t relevant or can be dismissed. This is a case where we’re asked to believe that the police were responsible for framing an innocent man and so any evidence which seems to contradict that view can easily be thrown out as ‘just another thing they did’. This is exactly the same as the 9-11 truthers dismissing any science which goes against their view of it being an inside job.
It’s difficult because the documentary is so excellently constructed to impart a specific point of view but an open mind should be maintained at all times. And, to agree with Dean Strang, one of Stephen Avery’s defence lawyers, it might be best is Stephen is guilty because it would be preferable to the alternative.
SOLD A STORY
And that brings me on to something very important. We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this is a real case and a real woman is dead. It’s great fun to play detective, to get outraged, to sign petitions, but all this renewed attention will be bringing further pain to a family who has suffered a great loss.
I’ve seen comments rebuking Mike Halbach, brother of Teresa, for his demeanour in press conferences in the documentary but I can feel nothing but sorrow for him, not only for the loss of his sister, but also for the lies he has been sold. As I said, I am of the view that Avery and Dassey are not guilty and that a case has been constructed in bad faith intending to put them away. Mike Halbach was not complicit in this. He comes from a different town and won’t know (or at least won’t appreciate the extent of) the history between Avery and the Manitowoc Police Department. He will have met the police and DA and trusted them as we all expect to be able to trust the police in such matters. He has been told a story and has, to use a highly emotive and perhaps inappropriate word, been indoctrinated by them.
It is, of course, totally understandable. He will have been told that Avery will say anything in his defence and not to believe it. He will be desperate for closure and someone to blame. And given the circumstances I doubt he’d have the ability to evaluate the evidence in a dispassionate manner. Add to that the fact that, on the face of it, the defence seems so far fetched. I mean, Avery’s defence is hardly Occam’s Razor. As one of his defence lawyer’s states early on, it’s not exactly the ideal defence to be offering. So with that in mind, why would Mike Halbach question what he’s been told?
Just like we, the viewers, are sold on Avery’s innocence (for the most part, anyway) and are liable to dismiss any evidence which disproves the story we want to hear, so Mike Halbach will not want to believe that Avery’s defence is remotely possible. What’s the alternative? That the people he trusted, the people there to protect and serve, to deliver justice, all lied to him to get even with someone who’s life they had already ruined once, while the real killer has been free for a decade and no one in a position to do anything about it has shown any inclination to do so. Horrifying.
This aspect was just one way in which I was reminded of the Meredith Kercher murder and Amanda Knox trial. As Knox’s first trial was starting I read a book called The Monster of Florence about a spate of killings in Florence and surrounding area which (and forgive some vagaries, it’s a while since I read it) were pinned on a group of men, supposedly carrying them out as part of some underground sex cult. The book details an incredible and ridiculous story concocted by the police and prosecutors that has more than a few resonances with the Kercher case. This probably shouldn’t be a surprise considering the same men were in charge of that investigation too. The bizarre sex cult aspect is the most obvious connection between the two and seems to be more of an obsession for the prosecutors than pretty much anyone else in the world.
As with the Halbach case, the Kercher family were told a story from the beginning by the prosecutors and have almost been held hostage by it, requiring the closure but not being given it. They maintain their belief that Knox is guilty (or at least said they did when she was finally acquitted), and probably always will, and I can’t blame them. I am convinced Knox is innocent but as with Mike Halbach, it would be so painful to think anything else. And as with Halbach, I can only feel sorry for them for not only having lost someone but having been lied to by the people they should be able to trust the most. I think we’d all like to think we could see past the bullshit being fed to us but I’m not sure any of us could.
For a true demonstration of how unpalatable this would be you just have to read this interview with Penny Beerntsen, the woman who’s testimony put Stephen Avery in jail, wrongly, the first time. She trusted police to have the right man and when it turned out they had led her the wrong way she found it almost unbearable. Of course it’s easier to believe what the police tell you.
Another important aspect of these cases and the indoctrination process is the way in which the prosecutors used the media, a media hungry for all the sordid details. In both the Halbach and Kercher murders a young, attractive women was killed and those in charge of finding the killer(s) took every opportunity to talk to the press and make their case before all (or any of) the facts were in. In both cases, the story presented too good to be true and the press loved the opportunity to discuss it. In one, an attractive young woman was killed by another attractive young woman (and partners in crime) as part of a sex game. In the other, a man in jail for 18 years for a crime he didn’t commit is now guilty of a far worse crime.
In both cases, the press helped sell the victims’ families the story. They all reported the culprits and events as fact (or may as well have) – no amount of “has been arrested for” and “has been accused of” disclaimers are going to undo the damage of the reporting. If everyone is telling you who the guilty party is, including the front page of every paper you see and the top item of any TV news report, how do you stop and ask yourself if it’s the right story?
True crime has been popular forever. We consume it daily in newspapers (OK, news websites) and on the news on TV as it happens and so shows like Serial, The Jinx and Making A Murderer have to be, in some way, bigger or more compelling and there are only so many of those to go around. I imagine we will be inundated with stories such as these, but whether they will ever replicate the cultural impact of these three, well, I have my doubts. I fancy we’re nearing peak true crime and it won’t be long until it resumes its place at the more ‘pulpy’ end of the spectrum. It may be more obvious than it was, particularly on television, but it will surely be more exploitative, more resembling the Fox reporter seen in Making A Murderer exclaiming how bloody murder sells than resembling the honest (I think) attempt at searching for justice for Stephen Avery.
But even when true crime was often the reserve of the pulp novel, great works were produced, from In Cold Blood to The Suspicions of Mr Whicher to The Devil in the White City, and this will surely continue to be the case.