Small Towns and Making a Murderer

downloadYes, I jumped on the Making a Murder bandwagon like everyone else. It’s break. I have time to binge, so I gobbled that sucker up. How can you not? It’s like watching Serial (yes, we can talk about Season Two of that as well soon), but I can watch it all at once and not wait every week for a new episode.

makin_bts_004_h_custom-f7ba9d7e6eaf063dee5ad7be3acde4b56434317b-s300-c85If you’ve been living under a rock, Making A Murder is a Netflix 10-part documentary directed by Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi who moved to Mantiowoc, Wisconsin and lived there for two years attending the 2007 trial of Steven Avery and following his story. Graduate film school students with nothing to lose and time on their hands, Demos and Ricciardi immersed themselves in the community, creating a very ethnographic true crime documentary that has quickly become an internet sensation.

Making a Murder tells the story of Steven Avery who was convicted of a brutal sexual assault in 1985 and released in 2003 after DNA evidence exonerated him and convicted someone else. Yet, two years after his release, he was accused of the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach (he was possibly the last person to see her alive) and along with his nephew, Brendan Dassey. Both were convicted in 2007 and have been serving time in prison ever since.

What I find most intriguing about the series (because how can you not be sucked into it), is just how much it shows issues with the American legal system and really gives a background into what happens before the trial even begins. Although the series imgresfocuses on the trials of Avary and Dassey, it spends a great deal of time addressing how Avary and Dassey came to be put on trial for Halbach’s murder. (And also how Avary was convicted of the sexual assault charges in 1985).

In the first case, it was interesting to me that even though there was evidence that pointed toward someone besides Avary, the prosecution seemed to have spent so much time focusing on Avary and working toward a conviction, that they just kept things going and worked toward winning the case.

The series also shows a great deal of “rush to judgment” in the cases. One piece of evidence would be found, and instead of exploring more evidence or more leads, law enforcement would just focus on that one piece of evidence and work to make that evidence fit the case they wanted to pursue and present.

There is discussion all over the internet about whether or not Avary and Dassey should be pardoned. People are creating petitions to free Steven Avary (and as of today it is almost to 500,000 signatures) and Ken Kratz, the former District Attorney who prosecuted the case is coming forward saying that evidence has been left out of the documentary.  It would be easy for me to talk about the facts or the case or what I think should (or should not) take place. But, I’ll let you all watch the series and make some comments about what you think. Instead, I want to talk about what I appreciated most about the series.

Living in a small town where we have few murders, where even though the grocery store is 5 minutes away it might take me 30 minutes to buy milk because I run into so many people I know, and knowing that any major news will be spread around town in imgresa matter of days, I was equally intrigued by the series handled Manitowoc, Wisconsin. I love living in my small town. But, I also know if something like this happened here, it would be hard to find a jury that felt comfortable speaking out against law enforcement. Or, for that matter, if you had the reputation Steven Avary had, it would be difficult to get away from people thinking about you in a certain way.

Making a Murder does a nice job of bringing the viewer into the community and really showing how community impacts and influences decisions. More than once during the trial when defense attorneys Dean Strang and Jerry Buting (outsiders from the “big city”) would ask questions about individuals involved in the case or collecting evidence potentially tampering with evidence or doing something dishonest, the response would be something to the effect of “that might happen in the big city, but not in our small town.” The way that Demos and Ricciardi captured these elements of place and the importance of place to how we view crime and justice is what really makes this series valuable.

What I appreciate most about what Demos and Ricciardi were able to create was a narrative in which the viewers could get a feel of who the individuals involved in this complicated and complex case really are. I appreciate that they made Avary’s family be real people, people who viewers become invested in and care about. Even more than Avary, I wanted to know how his parents are doing. It is gut wrenching to watch what happens to a family when they are put through these trials.

But, I also struggle a bit with the fact that the case Steven Avary, a middle-aged white man, has become such an internet sensation and created such public outcry about the American legal system and the criminal justice system, in ways that the deaths of many young black men have not been able to do. Why is it that Avary’s case has become so popular? What is it about Avary that makes people want to find him innocent? I’m interested to know what will happen next with the Avary case and if Demos and Ricciardi (or another documentary team) could create the same kind of crowd swell with a case such as Darryl Hunt‘s or Paula Gray and the Ford Heights Four Case?


One comment

  1. Yes. Yes. Yes. Great post. I have thought a great deal about everything you address here. I’m really struck by the comment one of Avery’s lawyers made that if you are accused of a crime, you’ll never get your reputation back. You can hope for your liberty, and work toward obtaining your liberty, but you’ll never get your reputation back.


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