While watching Making A Murderer I went through a series of emotions: Anger, confusion, frustration, feeling powerless. But one emotion that didn’t hit me? Surprise. I was not shocked that the justice system was so flawed and that the Manitowoc County sheriff's department was dauntingly untrustworthy. Why? I'm a woman of color.
The Netflix documentary series is centered around Wisconsin's Manitowoc County and Steven Avery, a man who has spent most of the last 28 years fighting for his innocence. First, Avery was wrongfully convicted of rape due to the deliberate carelessness of investigators and exonerated 18 years later. Then, he was convicted again, for the murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach, and sentenced to life in prison—where he has been since 2007. The Averys are white. The Dasseys are white. The jury is white. The lawyers are white. The victims are white. The police department is white. The judge is white. The reporters are white. And, honestly, all of the whiteness is what makes this series so great—it means that a larger audience gets to see how broken the justice system can be.
As a black woman, I am overly aware of the warranted skepticism and disdain towards law enforcement by people of color. It's not new. But often the plight of white privilege, amongst other things, is the inability to identify or relate to situations you see yourself and your skin color exempt from. From Freddie Gray to Trayvon Martin to Tamir Rice, in the past few years there have been a disturbing number of publicized incidents of police violence. We've witnessed the deaths of too many men and women of color. Yet, according to a 2014 NBC News/Marist College poll, 83% of white people "say they have a great deal or at least a fair amount of trust in local police" while 52% "have a 'great deal' of confidence that police officers in their community treat blacks and whites equally." A December 2015 Gallup poll revealed that 56% of Americans have "faith in the honesty and ethics of police," up 8% from 2014.
But it seems that Making A Murderer is teaching white people around the country—from reporters for mainstream media, to Facebook friends, to co-workers—to see. The crime series focuses on the invisibility that comes with being white, poor and lower class—a position that, in many ways, parallels the invisibility that comes with being a person of color. It allows white people in denial of the injustices of the judicial system and police enforcement to become aware of (and informed about) what people of color have known all of their lives.
Corrupt law enforcement preys on those deemed to be invisible and powerless. The Manitowoc County sheriff's department got away with wrongfully convicting Steven Avery of rape in part because he was poor and uneducated. Consider the the case of Daniel Holtzclaw: the white cop thought he would get away with raping 13 black women because he figured no one would believe them. While Holtzclaw was eventually charged, tried and convicted, many cops accused of wrongdoings or corruption have not been punished—even if there is a settlement in a civil suit. Recent examples: 12-year-old Tamir Rice was holding a toy gun and shot multiple times by two Cleveland officers; the officers weren't indicted on any charges. 28-year-old Sandra Bland was arrested during a traffic stop and found dead in her jail cell three days later; the arresting officer's only charge was perjury. Ferguson officer Darren Wilson shot unarmed teenager Michael Brown and there were no charges filed.
Corrupt police officers have been known to plant evidence, blatantly lie, coerce confessions, and most importantly, get away with it. Steven Avery was eventually released from prison—after spending 18 years behind bars—due to new technology in DNA testing. A 2012 article from The Innocence Project revealed that out of 297 DNA exonerations, minorities make up 70%, with 63% being African-Americans.
Some wrongful convictions come from planting evidence. Avery's defense attorneys Dean Strang and Jerome Bunting tried to fight the murder allegations he was charged with by attempting to prove that the police planted his blood in Halbach's car—and planted her car keys in his home. Cops have planted everything from drugs to guns, and yes, even blood, in cases against men and women of color for years.
In 2009, in an attempt to cover up the police shooting of 19-year-old Fong Lee, the Minneapolis Police Department allegedly planted a gun at the scene of the crime. In April 2015, according to the AP, a Philadelphia cop named Jeffrey Walker told a jury that he "he stole drug money, planted evidence and lied on police paperwork too many times to count." (He also admitted to "carrying a heavy safe full of drug money down 17 flights of stairs to avoid being seen on the elevator security camera.") In November, a federal jury found that D.C. police had framed a man named Donald E. Gates in 1987—which resulted in him being imprisoned for 27 years for a rape and murder he did not commit. Last December, The Henry Country Report found leaked documents that revealed an group of "racial extremists" within an Alabama police department were planting drugs on black men for ten years, resulting in almost 1,000 wrongful convictions.
Other wrongful convictions don't need any "evidence" at all—just coerced confessions and witness statements, especially from juveniles, much like the seemingly coerced statements of Brendan Dassey and his younger cousin Kayla Avery in Making A Murderer. In 2014, Ricky Jackson, Kwame Ajamu, and Wiley Bridgeman were exonerated of their 1975 murder and robbery convictions after the only eyewitness (a then-12-year-old boy named Eddie Vernon) came forward to recant his statement, admitting that he never saw the incident but thought he was helping the police by "doing the right thing."
Of course, we may never know if cops actually planted evidence that led to the convictions of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey; there are so many conspiracy theories. And it's rather disheartening to admit that the story of a blond, blue-eyed, poor and uneducated white man might be the catalyst for white people understanding the struggles of people of color. But for what it's worth, it reminds me of a moment in another documentary: The Black Panthers: Vanguard of a Revolution. In the film, former Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was bringing Latinos, blacks and poor whites together by getting them to realize that though their issues weren't exactly the same, what they wanted was (and still is) closely related.
Making A Murderer is helping us to get on the same page in regards to conversations about corrupt law enforcement, injustice and racial inequalities.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.