On Dec. 28, authorities in Cleveland held a press conference to announce that the police officers responsible for the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice wouldn’t be indicted. A kid died as a result of being shot by one of the responding officers — for playing in the park with a pellet gun in what’s an open-carry state anyway — but prosecutors decided the incident constituted a misunderstanding, not a murder. Rice looked much older than he actually was. The gun looked much too real. So on and so forth. Law enforcement agencies are loath to admit wrongdoing — and the system often operates in a manner that protects them from having to do so.
It's rare that a week goes by when we aren't confronted by some similarly exasperating injustice or abuse of power — they’re on the nightly news, wedged between old friends’ blithe status updates on social media or, in the case of Making a Murderer, creating buzz as a television series.
[Don’t read on if you don’t want to know things about the show!]
The 10-part, true-crime documentary, available on Netflix since Dec. 18, tells the maddening story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years for a sexual assault he didn't commit, only to be accused of violently murdering a different woman, 25-year-old Teresa Halbach, just a few years after his release. Basically everything about Avery's being implicated in the Halbach murder stinks to high heaven. When he was arrested, Avery was in the process of pursuing a civil suit against the Manitowoc Police Department because it appeared that it had ignored evidence that another man, Gregory Allen, had committed the sexual assault for which Avery was in prison; after several unsuccessful appeals, Avery was exonerated when the Wisconsin Innocence Project conducted new DNA testing. Avery was attempting to sue for tens of millions of dollars — enough to bankrupt a small-town police department — but ended up settling for just $400,000 so he could afford a decent criminal defense. In one fell swoop, the county averts financial disaster and the individuals responsible for Avery's wrongful arrest and incarceration escape any serious consequences.
Then there's the matter of how Avery became a suspect. A member of a search party found Halbach's car on the Averys' auto-salvage lot, but an initial search of Avery's trailer came up clean for evidence. Then, after Manitowoc officers gained entry to the trailer under unexplained circumstances, Halbach's key suddenly materialized, neatly tucked beneath a house slipper. Avery's fate was sealed when 16-year-old Brendan Dassey, Avery's learning-disabled nephew and alibi, told police that he'd helped his uncle murder and mutilate Halbach.
It's gripping stuff; real human drama. But — to the documentarians' credit, I suppose — Making a Murderer is also excruciating viewing. From word one, it seems that Steven Avery never stood a chance against a power structure that's wont to run roughshod over the poor and undereducated (not to mention minorities, immigrants, the homeless). Episode three contains breathtaking footage of Dassey being interrogated for a third time about his involvement in the crime. At this point in the investigation, it's presumable that the officers have picked up on Dassey's impaired intellect and openness to suggestion. Slowly, methodically they take turns reminding Dassey of the importance of honesty and then delicately laying out for him what he might say to achieve honesty. Did you do something to her head? You did something to her head. Did you shoot her in the head? Dassey responds affirmatively. Demonstrating that he has no concept of the severity of his situation, the teen then asks the officers if they'll be done questioning him by 1:29 p.m. because he has a project due at school.
For my own mental health, I called it quits after that episode, when the thought of continuing felt more masochistic than edifying. So, no, I don't know whether Avery actually murdered Halbach — in the three hours I watched, no one in law enforcement made an honest attempt to even assert a motive. Whether I walk away now or in seven more episodes, at least I can feel that I got the point: Avery's case is frightening evidence that “innocent until proven guilty” is total and complete horseshit. And, really, I haven't turned my back on the show completely — my husband's submitting succinct verbal recaps after he watches it in a room that's out of earshot.
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