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Making a Murderer Taps Into National Skepticism Toward Law Enforcement

Over the holidays, Steven Avery became a household name. He's the subject of Making a Murderer, a 10-episode documentary series released just over two weeks ago. The Internet is already lit up by intense reactions from viewers who binge-watched the full series, holiday season be damned. Filmed in Wisconsin, the show centers around Avery, who spent 18 years in prison for a wrongful conviction of sexual assault. When DNA evidence turned over that case, freeing Avery, he sued Manitowoc County and the Sheriff's Department for its negligence. During that trial though, just two years after his release, he was arrested for the murder of Teresa Halbach. In court, the defense argued he was being framed by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department — a bold claim for any defense team and one the documentary meticulously demonstrates to be plausible. To get to the heart of the matter, we sat down with Bill Holston, a human rights attorney in Dallas. 

The documentary demonstrates how Avery and his teenage nephew (who materializes months after the incident in question with a damning confession) were charged by any means necessary, including practices that were dishonest, unethical and probably illegal. The way a confession is force-fed to Avery’s teenage nephew seems particularly troubling. Holston sees this sort of behavior as a reaction to an outdated narrative, one that relies on innocent until proven guilty. “The guilty guy gets off on a technicality," he explains. "But the technicalities are actually our system — it’s the Constitution, it’s not having forced confessions. It’s to protect the integrity of our system.”

“Criminal justice makes for a good story,” Holston continues. “You have a bad guy and a good guy and sometimes there’s nuance to it. These are important stories and I think most people haven’t encountered our criminal justice system. They’re very curious about it and want to know what goes on. It’s also a great illustration of the myth of certainty.”

What makes Making a Murderer so interesting is that it very adamantly tells the story of an innocent man assumed guilty and destroyed by a corrupt legal system. In order to obsess over this story and be outraged, you essentially have to view law enforcement as the villain. What’s striking is the number of people who have no qualms about taking this stance.

Manitowoc County has been taking a beating on social media. The city of Manitowoc and its police department received so much hate that they started issuing statements explaining that they are not the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department. Ken Kratz, the prosecutor who helped put Avery and his nephew away for murder, deleted his Twitter account after receiving death threats.

During this holiday season it was also announced that no officers would be charged for the killing of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy from Ohio. Rice had a pellet gun and police shot him before they even got out of the car. In a year full of stories about whether or not police committed murder, Rice’s case was one of the most notorious. Over the holidays, many were disgusted by the announcement of a grand jury’s refusal to indict. It made the judicial system seem even more crooked.

Many were also disgusted when the news of a Texas grand jury’s decision against indictments in Sandra Bland’s death were also quietly announced just before Christmas. Let’s not mince words: Bland was assaulted and illegally detained by a state trooper for failing to use a turn signal. But this case was unique in a way that's similar to Making a Murderer. The news that Sandra Bland committed suicide in a Waller County jail cell created a public outcry. Not only was the official story doubted, but many accused law enforcement of murdering Bland.

Just a few years ago, these stories weren't a major topic in mainstream media. Even the ones that made it through always seemed to give the police the benefit of the doubt and remind us that they are the good guys, here to protect and serve. But things have quickly changed. Stories about American cops using excessive force and possibly even murdering people are ubiquitous these days.

Now that most of us have cameras in our pockets, countless videos have begun to surface. Stories that communities all over the country had been telling about their police departments for decades seemed to be true. Backed up by video footage, we started seeing more stories about citizens being brutalized and killed by police. But the law enforcement agencies were still given the benefit of the doubt and the simplistic narrative of good guy cops fighting bad guys was still prevalent.

The aftermath of Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson seemed to mark another turning point. Many believed Brown was executed by an officer while his knees were on the ground and his hands were in the air, and it sparked protests. But mainstream media seemed more interested in making sure that peaceful protestors were confused with rioters and looters. The coverage wasn’t especially critical, even after militarized law enforcement turned Ferguson into a veritable warzone.

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But then police threw tear gas at news crews as they were setting up for broadcasts. They even started arresting journalists. Mobile devices seemed to provide proof of what people had been saying for decades. But reporters significantly relied on law enforcement officials for stories just the same, so they kept throwing softballs. Once the police went after the press that seemed to really change coverage.

A true crime documentary series like Making a Murderer is a fairly new format. Errol Morris’ 1988 feature-length documentary, The Thin Blue Line, could be considered a starting point for this sort of innocence project entertainment. In 2004, a documentary series about a murder trial called The Staircase also helped create the blueprint. But neither presented law enforcement as the bad guy. And they certainly didn't have the advocacy aid of social media. 

But times have changed. By all accounts, Americans became more critical of the federal government during the Vietnam War than they had ever been before. Things haven’t been the same since. We have seen countless horrific videos of police assaulting and even killing citizens and new stories are coming in on a daily basis. Time after time, no one is held accountable. The response to Making a Murderer may be signaling a new era in terms of how we view law enforcement.

But a negative view of the system won’t change it. Same goes for watching documentaries and iPhone videos. That only happens if we participate in it. Jury duty should be taken seriously; it's not something to avoid. “Do we want juries to consist of people who have nothing to do but spend a day down there?” Holston asks. But it is even more important to get educated about candidates in judicial elections and vote. A district attorney, for example, has to be elected. But from there they appoint assistant district attorneys and create a culture, hopefully one of ethical people truly interested in seeking justice.   

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