Journalism and the courts are, ideally, protected against bias by a system of checks and balances. That wasn’t necessarily the case for the filmmakers behind Making a Murderer.
In the Netflix series, documentarians Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos painstakingly present hours of footage of the trial that ultimately resulted in Avery’s conviction for the murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach. They also present footage of the trial of Avery’s learning-disabled nephew, Brendan Dassey, who was ultimately found guilty of aiding Avery in his vicious crime.
The docu-series presents Avery and Dassey as victims of a grotesquely dysfunctional criminal justice system, and the majority of viewers finish the series appalled by the failure of Wisconsin courts. But how impartial were Ricciardi and Demos in their filmmaking? Have we actually heard the whole story?
A New Yorker article by Kathryn Schulz questions the filmmakers’ methods. Schulz writes that she spoke with Penny Beerntsen, the woman who incorrectly identified Avery as her rapist which led to 18 years of his wrongful imprisonment. Beerntsen was sickened by her contribution to Avery’s fate, despite the fact that she was primarily influenced by a poorly-executed police investigation, and became involved in the Innocence Project to attempt to make up for her role. But she refused to participate in the docu-series.
“It was very clear from the outset that they believed Steve was innocent,” Beerntsen told Schulz. “I didn’t feel they were journalists seeking the truth. I felt like they had a foregone conclusion and were looking for a forum in which to express it.”
In her article, Schulz presents a number of flaws about the series: It never presents a cohesive, chronological explanation of Halbach’s death, important-seeming pieces of evidence are raised and then dropped, the entire project has a clear, unwavering thesis, despite inconvenient, complicating facts.
Noting that the show refrained from focusing on the real systemic issues leading to Avery and Dassey’s convictions, Schulz writes:
[We have not] evolved a set of standards around extrajudicial investigations of criminal cases. However broken the rules that govern our real courts, the court of last resort is bound by no rules at all...
But it does enable individual journalists to proceed as they choose, and the choices made by Ricciardi and Demos fundamentally undermine “Making a Murderer.” Defense attorneys routinely mount biased arguments on behalf of their clients; indeed, it is their job to make the strongest one-sided case they can. But that mandate is predicated on the existence of a prosecution. We make moral allowances for the behavior of lawyers based on the knowledge that the jury will also hear a strong contrary position. No such structural protection exists in our extrajudicial courts of last resort, and Ricciardi and Demos chose not to impose their own.
Schulz recalls an interview with a Dateline NBC producer featured in the series. In it, the producer speaks about Avery’s case: “It’s a story with a twist, it grabs people’s attention... Right now murder is hot, that’s what everyone wants, that’s what the competition wants, and we’re trying to beat out the other networks to get that perfect murder story.” When the public is ravenous for stories of the wrongfully-convicted (Serial, The Jinx), Schulz asks, what distinguishes Ricciardi and Demos from that opportunistic, audience-driven producer?
“My initial reaction was that I shouldn’t be upset with the documentarians, because they can’t help the public reacted the way that it did,” Beerntsen told Schulz after the show was released. “But the more I thought about it, the more I thought, Well, yeah, they do bear responsibility, because of the way they put together the footage. To me, the fact that the response was almost universally, ‘Oh my god, these two men are innocent,’ speaks to the bias of the piece. A jury doesn’t deliberate twenty-some hours over three or four days if the evidence wasn’t more complex.”
Read the full article at the New Yorker.
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Image via Netflix.