Netflix's new, 10-part documentary series, Making a Murderer, is riveting but emotionally devastating.
It tells the tale of Wisconsin man Steven Avery, who spent 18 years in prison for a sexual assault he did not commit, who was free for only two years before being charged with another sexual assault and murder, along with his 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey. The case against Avery and Dassey was built in large part by law enforcement officers on the wrong end of Avery's $36 million wrongful conviction lawsuit against the county.
While the documentary does not resolve the question of who killed Teresa Halbach, a photographer who stopped by the Avery property to take photos of a vehicle and then disappeared, it does very convincingly make the argument that Halbach's death did not get a fair, unbiased investigation and that Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey were wronged by the justice system.
If you watched the series, you likely spent a lot of time screaming at your TV or computer screen, before melting into a crying heap at its conclusion. There are no redemptive moments. The feeling of hopelessness has led watchers to do some predictable things: gather on Reddit to go down rabbit holes about what really happened, express outrage on social media and through petitions, and online shame those involved in the miscarriage of justice, with the Yelp pages of prosecutor Ken Kratz and Dassey's defense attorney Len Kachinsky taking a particular beating.
The filmmakers, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, who spent 10 years on the project, advised against amateur sleuthing in the Daily Beast. Their hope is that Avery and Dassey's story will help illuminate larger problems with the criminal justice system:
"These are things that are happening in every county in this country,” Demos said. “We hope that the dialogue gets beyond this case, and beyond Manitowoc County. I think that would be an opportunity squandered if the dialogue did not broaden to look at what the broader things going on here are.”
“We consider this an American story,” added Ricciardi. “An American story that happened to play out in Wisconsin.”
So rather than turning to the court of public opinion or going down a rabbit hole, here are a few things to read to further depress yourself about the state of justice in America—as well as things to keep in mind if you're ever sitting on a jury.
1. The Interview, The New Yorker (Dec 2013)
Teenagers Brendan Dassey and his cousin Kayla Avery both said incriminating things in interviews with investigators that they later said they made up. Dassey actually made a full confession with horrifying details about his role in raping and murdering Teresa Halbach, claims that weren't backed up by forensic evidence. He later said they were inspired by a book he read called Kiss The Girls, a serial killer thriller by James Patterson.
After Len Kachinsky was dismissed, Dassey's second, more competent defense team tried to get Dassey's confession thrown out. Dassey's lawyer talked about the "Reid technique" that investigators are taught to elicit confessions from people, and how it can often get false ones. Read this piece on how that happens. Excerpt:
Of the three hundred and eleven people exonerated through post-conviction DNA testing, more than a quarter had given false confessions—including those convicted in such notorious cases as the Central Park Five. The extent of the problem is unknowable, because there’s no national database on wrongful convictions. But false confessions, which often lead to these convictions, are not rare, and experts say that Reid-style interrogations can produce them.
2. FBI notifies crime labs of errors used in DNA match calculations since 1999, The Washington Post (May 2015)
3. FBI admits flaws in hair analysis over decades, The Washington Post (April 2015)
One of the most promising moments for the defense in the series is when Avery's attorney, Jerry Buting, goes to investigate the case files from Avery's 1985 wrongful conviction for rape. He discovers that someone has cut into a box sealed by the crime lab that contains a vial of Avery's blood, and that someone has stuck a needle through the top of the test tube which is not the procedure used by lab technicians. Buting says it could explain why Avery's blood showed up in conspicuous squiggles in Halbach's Toyota Rav-4, but why his fingerprints weren't found there, even though the prosecution's argument was that he was bleeding from a finger wound.
Halfway through the trial, the FBI comes up with a test that it says can prove the blood came from a human body instead of from a test tube, based on the presence of EDTA. A technician from the FBI testifies that he is absolutely certain that the blood in Halbach's vehicle didn't come from a test tube. Avery's defense brings in an independent lab technician who says it is impossible for the FBI to say with 100% certainty that its test could rule out that the blood came from a test tube. The jury, which found Avery guilty, was evidently not swayed by that.
In the last year, the FBI has admitted to two large scale screw-ups when it comes to their testing of forensic evidence. One was a problem with the accuracy of their DNA testing that the bureau allegedly ignored for a decade according to a whistleblower. The other had to do with FBI investigators overstating forensic certainty about hair and bite evidence in a way that favored the prosecution for more than 20 years. From that article:
The admissions mark a watershed in one of the country’s largest forensic scandals, highlighting the failure of the nation’s courts for decades to keep bogus scientific information from juries, legal analysts said. The question now, they said, is how state authorities and the courts will respond to findings that confirm long-suspected problems with subjective, pattern-based forensic techniques — like hair and bite-mark comparisons — that have contributed to wrongful convictions in more than one-quarter of 329 DNA-exoneration cases since 1989.
4. Worse than the Devil, Dean Strang (March 2013)
Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, Steven Avery's defense attorneys, compellingly make the argument on camera that their client did not get a fair investigation or trial given the involvement of two officers, James Lenk and Andrew Colborn, who had been recently deposed in Avery's wrongful conviction lawsuit. The other challenge for Avery was that the prosecution shared so much information with the public before the trial. The jury was likely aware of horrific allegations against Avery, such as those contained in Dassey's recanted confession, that were never raised at trial, but remained ghostlike in the jurors' minds.
If you're among those enamored of Strang's turns of phrase throughout the documentary, then read his book about failures of the justice system that date back to the beginning of the 20th Century.
5. And only then, if you must, read the amateur sleuthing on Reddit.