Review: Making a Murderer (somewhat spoiler-free)

I encourage you to check the series out before reading this post. Although I tried my best to include as few spoilers as possible, it’s impossible to not give away some of the plot.

The filmmakers do a great job presenting a colourful cast of characters and showing the spectrum of human emotions from multiple points of view. The underlying issue throughout the whole documentary is the biases that we all have. Who do you believe: a perceived lower-class citizen with a criminal history or a multitude of state and government agents?

It is interesting to think about a victim’s family and how human emotions can potentially cloud objective judgment. While watching, I encourage you to put yourself in the position of many of the characters. Do you think that as a member of law enforcement you’d protect the reputation of you and your colleagues as people of strong character that uphold the law by breaking it and planting evidence? Anyways, you’ve been warned of possible spoilers; on with the post.

netflix-making-a-murdererOver the holidays, I watched the Netflix series Making a Murderer. It was a riveting look at the State of Wisconsin’s criminal justice system.

A quick synopsis of the story is that Steven Avery was convicted of rape in 1985. He was then exonerated 18 years later by DNA evidence.

While Avery had a civil lawsuit pending against the Manitowac County police department, he was accused of the murder of Teresa Halbach. Steven’s nephew Brendan Dassey also confessed to participating in the murder.

The series centers on the possibility of a conspiracy against Steven Avery by the Manitowac police department. It covers the trials of Avery and Brendan Dassey, as well as interviews with significant family members.

The reason I am writing this post about me watching TV is not because I found it undoubtedly entertaining (although I did), it’s because it made me think about things I’d never thought of before.

I have no background in and any type of knowledge of law, so this is just a layman’s opinion on a popular TV show (for purely speculative and entertainment purposes).

About reasonable doubt

averyReasonable doubt seems like such a vague definition. I think analytically, so to me there should be a scale in which you could rank the confidence of your decision.

For instance, let’s use a scale between 0 and 100%, where 0% means that there is no doubt in your mind that the accused is innocent and 100% means you’re completely sure they’re guilty.

First of all, unless you witnessed the crime first-hand, it’s hard for me to comprehend that you know whether someone is completely innocent or guilty. I think 0% or 100% on the scale is impossible.

What is reasonable doubt on the scale? I personally believe that if I want to send someone to prison for life, I need to be at least 80% sure that they are guilty. However, I feel that this percentage varies from one individual to the next.

Do you believe that it’s better to put an innocent man in jail than to let a guilty man go free? If so, then your percentage of certainty of a crime could be less than 50% when determining what constitutes reasonable doubt.

Environmental factors also play a huge role. Did you grow up in an environment where there was a lot of crime? Do you have a favorable view of the criminal justice system?

You then start thinking about assigning weights to certain pieces of evidence or testimony. I think that physical evidence should be weighted more than witness testimony. Unfortunately, in this trial the hypothesis is that police tampered with evidence, which then makes you ask yourself which physical evidence is then credible.

The situation gets so complicated that I’m unsure that someone who gets put on the jury would have the ability to make sense of it and make an informed unbiased decision.

Breaking down the evidence

making-a-murdererHere’s how I break down the evidence based on what I saw on the documentary:

I am 50/50 on whether Steven Avery is guilty at the point of the trial, based the evidence presented in the documentary.

Because the documentary is possibly biased towards the defence—a TV show presenting a police conspiracy will get better ratings and be more captivating to an audience—I will assign an extra 20% of guilt.

So now I’m at 70/30, which is less than my cut-off of lower than 80% as the threshold of reasonable doubt. Could I be swayed by another jury member for that extra 10%? It’s definitely possible if they gave a rationally reasoned argument.

I am much less convinced of Brendan Dassey being guilty. There’s no physical evidence that he was involved in the crime, only a confession potentially coerced by the police. That is not enough for me to convict.

Persuasion in the jury

avery2Another concern of mine is that with a jury of 12 people and a verdict only reached if all 12 agree, there is a lot of persuading going on.

The jury members who are better at persuading people to their side of the story can actually have more power in the actual decision than that of one person.

It seems to me that the threat of leaving a murderer out of jail and the potential of them committing another horrific crime weighs heavily on the minds of potential innocent votes.

Then again, they let O.J. Simpson go free, but he was a beloved famous athlete. A determined guilty-voting jury member, much like a determined prosecutor, gets to be much more aggressive when arguing for a conviction and can play on people’s fear of potential repercussions.

The pragmatic brilliance displayed by Avery’s lawyers, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, was astonishing. If the documentary made you question every part of the criminal justice system, then Dean Strang single-handedly convinced you there are virtuous people working within it.

There were many touching moments in the documentary, where you could see that Dean Strang was in an emotional struggle with what was going on.

Portrayal of the Avery family

I found it compelling how the Avery family was portrayed by the general public in the area as lower class.

Historically, the lower class are easily exploited by the justice system because of their inability to finance good representation and the public bias towards them.

I found the Avery family a lot more credible than the police in the documentary, and the behavior and demeanor presented by Steven Avery to be consistent with an innocent person. Unfortunately, the physical and circumstantial evidence seemed to tie him to the crime.

Public pressure and self-awareness

avery-timelineAs of today, many people who have watched the documentary have signed petitions to pardon Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. It’s going to be interesting to see what public pressure does to the case.

The documentary was a fascinating study of human behavior, and the ability of the filmmakers to emotionally involve you in the case deserves applause. What I take away from the whole experience is the value of self-awareness.

Understanding the culture and people around you, being able to recognize motivations, and determining pre-emptive solutions to protect yourself is a vitally important skill.

I am encouraged that society is shifting to try and eliminate social biases, but, somberly, it may be time for me to admit, that in life, perception is often more important than truth.

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2 Responses

  1. Anna says:

    That’s another thing which didn’t make it into my holidays video and I thought about mentioning it. Luckily, you did it now in such an awesome way!
    I watched it with friends and I have to say that we all got so angry and started to Google about more background information. I can just say that I still can’t really believe what I saw there and that I don’t fully understand what was going on. But I do believe that there are some strange things going on. I mean, the FBI suddenly has a test ready when the prosecutor is asking, even though they first said it would take them months to develop one. And the scientist accidentally puts her own DNA into the sample but can’t redo it because she accidentally used it all up which totally is not common? Yeah… OF COURSE! Oh man, I could go on forever and I’m really curious to see what is going to happen with this case now. There are a lot of petitions now and pressure of the public.

    • James says:

      Glad you enjoyed it! The documentary did a good job of exposing the inequalities of the American justice system. I’m not sure I agree with petitions to completely pardon Steven Avery because I’m not convinced he is innocent. I would be okay with giving him a new trial. To believe there was a coverup means that you have to think that 2 state police departments (Manitowoc county and Calumet county) along with the FBI were involved, and that the actual murderer was committed to framing him the first place, which is possible but a lot tougher to prevent a leak with so many people responsible. Him committing the murder and the cops trying to frame him are not mutually exclusive and they could both be true. Someone acquainted to him may have been fed up with the attention he was receiving after being exonerated and his potential financial windfall, which could have been the motive to frame him. Somebody knows the truth.