Sunday, December 27, 2015

Making a Murderer

I watched the ten-part documentary Making a Murderer (2015; dirs. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos) within the span of a weekend.  I felt compelled to watch each episode, even as I grew increasingly dissatisfied with the depiction of the murder and the trials that followed.  First, the series was too long.  It could have been compressed.  Second, the series is told from the perspective of the Avery family, and we see relatively little from the perspective of the family of the young woman who was murdered, Teresa Halbach. There’s a lack of balance. In fact, the series led me to believe (perhaps this was not its intent) that Avery might have been guilty.  Finally, the series ends unresolved—Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey remain in prison, still pursuing without success various lines of appeal.
Frankly, if the intent was to convince us that Avery and his nephew were innocent, I don’t think this documentary succeeds.  At best, it leaves us uncertain, although it leaves strong doubts about the guilt of Brendan Dassey, who was sixteen at the time of the murder and who was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
The documentary does succeed in demonstrating that the quality of justice one receives is directly tied to the economic status of the accused, and to the availability of good lawyers.  It shows the helplessness of the accused when incompetent or dishonest law enforcement work against them. Steve Avery in the early 1980s was sentenced of beating and raping a woman.  The documentary demonstrates convincingly that he was framed by the local police and prosecutor. His family had a bad reputation in the community, was regarded as poor and shiftless, as outsiders.  He’s a convenient scapegoat. He spends 18 years in prison before DNA evidence exonerates him.  Released from prison, for a short time he becomes a public symbol of how weaknesses in the legal system can leads to unjust convictions.  Then he’s arrested again, this time for raping, killing, and incinerating a young woman.  This time the evidence appears to be more definite. Avery uses money received from a settlement with the state for the unjust conviction to hire two excellent lawyers to represent him.  As good as they seem to be, they can’t convince the local jury that their client is innocent.  Perhaps they err in arguing that evidence central to the case—a key, and blood found in the victim’s car—was planted by local police. It’s possible members of the jury, all from the local community, didn’t like their policemen being accused of corruption.  It does seem likely the key was planted.  It was not found until the seventh time Avery’s home was searched. The argument that the blood evidence was planted seems less convincing). Avery presents himself as a reasonable and affable man, and in the many recorded phone conversations used in the documentary, he never comes across as anything other than an innocent victim of police bias and malfeasance. However, other evidence (such as the victim’s bone fragments recovered from a fire-pit on his property, and her vehicle, recovered from the auto junkyard he owns), suggest his guilt. There may be a darker side to Avery, a murderous side, but the filmmakers don’t show it.
The documentary implies that the factors leading to Avery’s conviction had little to do with guilt or innocence, and more to do with poverty, the family’s reputation in the community, and Avery’s previous difficulties with the police. 
More clearly outrageous is the case of the 16-year old nephew Brandon Dassey.  He’s described as barely functional, with an IQ of 70 and a verbal IQ of 67.  When the police first question him, he’s hardly able to communicate.  He doesn’t understand what they ask him, doesn’t understand basic vocabulary (“inconsistent,” for example), doesn’t understand why they are questioning him.  The detectives lie to him, ask pointed questions, bully and pressure him, suggest that he won’t go to jail if he tells the truth (that is, the story they want to hear), he implicates himself.  His court-appointed lawyer is not present when he is questioned by the police without his presence, encourages him to take a plea deal, and basically connives with the police to convince the boy to tell a story that will make him a prime witness against his uncle.  An interrogator hired by the defense attorney bullies the boy into confessing. The boy gives three or four different versions of the story, ultimately insisting that he has nothing to do with the crime.  He’s a helpless, pathetic, manipulated victim of corrupt police and a dishonest defense attorney.  He’s the victim of a legal system that is biased against the poor and biased in favor of law enforcement officials even when allegations of corruption or incompetence are involved.
It’s quite possible Dassey was guilty.  But his guilt is not demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt.  It’s possible his uncle manipulated him into helping with the crime or at least with covering it up.   It’s also possible, perhaps likely, he was innocent. 
The documentary uses recorded video testimony from the trials and from interrogations of Dassey, audio recordings of phone conversations and of courtroom transcripts.  Many individuals are interviewed, especially members of the Avery family.  The documentary generates an intriguing sense of place, of setting, of atmosphere.  It offers vivid portraits (some of them one-sided) of the principal figures involved.  It tells a disturbing story. It doesn’t convince us of the innocence of Avery and Dassey.  It does convince us of the egregious shortcomings in the law enforcement and legal system that convicted them.

Given the apparent unwillingness of prosecutors and grand juries to indict policemen who shoot young black men in, at best, questionable circumstances, or who commit other actions that lead to their deaths, this documentary has particular relevance.

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