by Amanda DelaCruz
Last night I expected to drink some sleepy tea and then head to bed. Instead, my husband turned on Netflix and we started their newest true-crime series Making a Murderer by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos. It's 3 pm the next day and we're done the entire ten episode season. We haven’t been so riveted in ages. To forego sleep is a huge deal for me, and I willingly stayed up til 4am watching seven episodes. I then woke up four hours later because I needed to know how this ended and I didn't want to waste another second sleeping.
Making a Murderer details the injustices incurred by Steven Avery over 30 years by the Manitowoc County legal system in Wisconsin. In 1985, even with 22 people attesting his alibi, he was wrongly accused and jailed for the brutal sexual assault of Penny Beerntsen. After 18 years in jail, new DNA evidence testing revealed that it was forensically impossible that he was responsible. He understandably tried to sue for $36 million against Manitowoc County, it's former Sheriff and former District Attorney. He wanted them to be accountable for the corruption in their system that led to his wrongful imprisonment, and to make sure no one suffered like he had again. Two years later, a young woman Teresa Halbach goes missing and the last person to have seen her is none other than the same Steven Avery.
There were countless times that I was completely floored by what was unveiled in this documentary. I would just look to my husband in disbelief - did we really just see that? How do people get away with such blatant dishonesty and inconsistencies? I find lying extremely difficult for myself - it makes my heart race and my hands shake. To prevent this reaction, I prefer to live as truthfully as I can. I don't find it worthwhile in the long run for whatever small gain I win. So, to see witnesses, investigators, family, or police bend the truth, omit details, or completely fabricate stories continued to shock me every time I saw it happen.
What does truth matter? That is the core of this documentary. Can truth prevail when we are surrounded by liars and media sensationalists?
[mild spoilers ahead]
This story is even more compelling because we are seeing real footage - of coercive interrogations, of suspicious search parties, of despondent prison phone calls. We are seeing a family slowly shattered from lies and conspiracies. We are shown court footage where time and time again we see witnesses who can't remember critical moments that could either exonerate Steven or damn themselves entirely.
They don't remember whether they had erased Teresa's messages, they can't remember if they had last seen her in the morning or the afternoon, they can't remember if they're the ones who brought up the make of the car or the dispatcher had told them.
What is infuriating is that saying "I don't remember," or "I'm not sure," can be considered sufficient in a line of questioning. That they refuse to even back up their own previous reports until it is brought forward as evidence is mind boggling.
Is the truth enough when a whole county, or maybe even the whole country, is against you?
When Steven was behind bars for the first 18 years, he refused to state that he was guilty even though he was repeatedly reminded that were he to do so then he would be eligible for parole. He maintained his innocence and refused to give in no matter the consequences. In this whole documentary series he, alongside his parents, seemed to be the only ones so steadfast in their stories. He didn't falter, he didn't compromise. This glaringly sticks out because when people were called to testify there were "instances where people attempted to change what they had said to the investigators for the attorney general's office when [they were being deposed]...the more attempts there [were] to wriggle out of prior statements, the weaker the rationalizations [became]."
It is easier to keep track of the truth. Repeatedly, we see these people try to backtrack, and if they could not, feign forgetfulness or ignorance.
Truth was overshadowed time and time again. You would think that logic overcomes emotion, but emotional responses seemed to hold much more weight than logical ones in this case. The State Attorney repeatedly attempted to appeal to emotion rather than fact. Prosecutor Kratz started his opening statement by describing 25 year old Halbach as “a little girl”, and then corrected himself, saying "sorry, young woman." He regaled the crowd with gory details without physical evidence to back it up, and tried to appear outraged that the defense tried to defame hard working, innocent police officers rather than focus on the fact that there is a legitimate concern of evidence tampering.
Steven Avery had not lived a completely innocent life. He had been to jail for theft, and for throwing a cat into a fire. His cousin had filed a report against him when he pointed an unloaded gun on her. He wasn't the most well behaved citizen. But that doesn't automatically make someone a violent rapist or murderer. When Sheriff Ken Petersen made the statement that Avery would kill again because "I think that's his personality," that should not be the logical conclusion. He was painted as guilty before the trial had even begun.
What this documentary does in abundance is leave you with burning questions. This is not True Detective (season 1!) where there is a clear ending, and rightful consequences. This is real life, and it is messy. The Defense is able to cast doubt on every aspect of the state's allegations, but in the end it is the jury who needs the convincing.
In any documentary, in any news piece, there is bias.
In framing this documentary it's clear that the filmmakers are on the side of the Avery's but they are doing this with fact based reporting at the forefront, and like the reporters in their film, they are able to sway public opinion on this case by the way they have put it together. Teresa's brother Mike, her ex-boyfriend and her roommate are all cast in a suspicious light in this film with darker music, an emphasis on pointed looks to each other, and questions without complete answers. While this is in the documentary numerous times, it appears in the courtroom that these three men were never seriously considered as suspects to even warrant much attention. From episode two my husband and I had an inkling that the brother had something to do with Teresa's death when he said "the grieving process could take days, or weeks, or years," he seemed like someone who was faking his emotions, and not very well. (Also, DAYS?!) Another note is that his sister wasn't reported dead at that time, merely missing. So why would he assume that the appropriate response was to grieve? Normally hope is the overarching emotion when someone goes missing, it wouldn't immediately be grief at a supposed death.
But would I have thought this if I had simply watched the news or read some reports online? How much does the media colour our judgements? Can anyone really be a blank slate when they make any kind of judgement in a world where we can't even trust ourselves to be spoiler free when we walk into a movie?
When investigators tell Brendan Dassey that he is not telling the truth, that they can't help him when he details the evening and his innocence in anything regarding Teresa, it's clear that they have confirmation bias at best and are framing him at worst. Steven and his nephew are depicted as pawns in a big game, and most especially Brendan.
Watching him change his story and start to believe his own lies is chilling in that the investigators spend hours chipping away at him, making him create a story that they could spin in their favour.
Even with bias, this documentary is not made up of reenactments and hearsay, it is real footage around the investigation of a real crime, and all the people it affected. It is clear that confessions taken at face value have little meaning without context and without evidence. Confessions are not inherently the truth, they are a perspective and one that can be manipulated by the media, misunderstanding, or coercion.
After it was revealed that the control sample of a bullet was contaminated during DNA testing, the Prosecution made a comment to reporters that, "Sometimes you do have to deviate just to make sense." This appears to be what they had been doing all along - working with their confirmation bias.
A documentary like this may be the type of thing that the public needs to help people see the complexity behind the headlines and scapegoating frequently done in the media. A good note is that The Innocence Project has begun looking into Steven Avery's case once more after the release of this documentary series just ten days ago.
During an interrogation, Steven was told to just admit to killing Teresa and to "come back to reality," but in this documentary, he seems to be the only one there.