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Making a Murderer: Half a Compelling Story

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There’s a brief scene at the beginning of episode 5 of the Netflix serial documentary Making a Murderer that illustrates the entire series’ raison d’être. When walking into a Wisconsin court to prosecute alleged murderer Steven Avery, Calumet County district attorney Ken Kratz makes a lithe step around the metal detector near the door of the courtroom, walking right to his desk.

The series is an attempt to portray law enforcement as working outside the rules set for regular civilians, and riding roughshod over the poor and intellectually deficient. The ten-part documentary contends that Avery was the victim of a corrupt law-enforcement system that planted evidence to secure his conviction in the 2005 murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach. In 1985, Avery had been convicted of raping a woman in his native Manitowoc County, and he served 18 years in prison. Then in 2003, his conviction was overturned when DNA evidence from the crime scene proved it wasn’t Avery who committed the rape.

Upon his release, Avery became a cause célèbre in Wisconsin, eventually filing a $36 million lawsuit against Manitowoc County, which was responsible for his 1985 conviction. Yet when Halbach disappeared in 2005 after coming out to Avery’s auto-salvage yard to photograph a vehicle there for Auto Trader magazine, Avery was a suspect. Soon, Halbach’s remains were found in a fire pit in Avery’s backyard; witnesses said Avery had had a bonfire the night Halbach went missing. The story immediately made national news — according to the national Innocence Project, nobody had ever been convicted of a murder after previously being exonerated of a crime by DNA testing.

The series, produced by New York filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, focuses almost entirely on the criminal defense offered by Avery and his nephew, then-16-year-old Brendan Dassey, who confessed, then retracted his confession, claiming his first admission was given under duress. Throughout the trial, the filmmakers had seemingly unlimited access to both Avery’s family and his defense team, who did an admirable job of manufacturing doubt about Avery’s guilt. The series essentially serves as Avery’s Super PAC.

This is why, following the documentary’s release, Avery’s innocence has been proclaimed by millions on social media. Suddenly, everyone has become an expert on criminal procedure. One petition calling for Avery’s release has been signed by over 200,000 people. Celebrities from all corners of the popular media have chimed in. “Never mind an Emmy or an Oscar . . . @MakingAMurderer deserves a Nobel Prize,” gushed Ricky Gervais, who added, “The greatest documentary I’ve ever seen.” And Alec Baldwin proclaimed on Twitter that “If you live in #Matinowoc [sic] WI, you should be scared to death.”

But it seems that the scariest place to be in Manitowoc was in Avery’s junkyard. Basing one’s view of the criminal-justice system on a heavily slanted documentary is like claiming you’re an expert on politics because you watched The West Wing. A ton of evidence presented during Avery’s trial was excluded from Making a Murderer, presumably because it didn’t fit the filmmakers’ agenda.

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