The true crime genre has received a massive uptick in popular recognition over the last few weeks with “Making a Murderer,” a spell-binding documentary released by Netflix which has created a firestorm of debate across the country and around the world.
Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos tell the saga of Steven Avery, a man wrongly convicted of rape and jailed for 18 years before DNA evidence exonerated him, only to wind up as the main suspect in the murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach in 2005. The film proceeds to show how Avery, who was convicted of the murder, may have been framed by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department and once again wrongly convicted.
As filmmaking goes, “Making a Murderer” is riveting. An enthralling epic told through 10 one hour-long episodes, each one ripping a myriad of emotions from the viewer as the tragic narrative unfolds, gripping tighter with each installment; anger, despair, sadness, distrust, disgust. The urge to keep watching is unbearable to resist to see if all of the wrongs are ever righted and the countless “Are you f***ing kidding me?” turn of events make for hypnotic, almost entrancing television.
For me, however, this is where the positives of “Making a Murderer” end.
I live 40 minutes from the Avery property where the murder took place. I live approximately 20 minutes from the Halbach family. I lived here and followed the story, as it was impossible not to, when it was playing out in real-time. I saw the purple ribbons in front yards all across northeast Wisconsin in memory of Teresa. I saw, and still see to this day, “Live Like Teresa” written on window stickers and signs all over the surrounding communities.
And I know what “Making a Murderer” left out.
The specifics of the case will not be rewritten or debated here. The internet has made a fine platform for that. Armchair crime-solvers who clearly believe their schooling from watching “CSI” and “Law & Order” have them fully equipped to crack the “real story” of what happened in Manitowoc have littered social media on both sides of the argument. The issue here, is that if “Making a Murderer” really was a documentary, and not a propaganda piece, most people would realize there really isn’t much of an argument at all.
The evidence against Avery is overwhelming. Halbach had a scheduled appointment at the Avery property the afternoon she went missing. Eyewitnesses placed her there. Her car was found there. Her burned up and mutilated bones were found there. Avery’s blood, and sweat DNA, was found in her car. Her keys were found in Avery’s bedroom. She was shot by a rifle hanging on a wall in Avery’s home.
The best defense he and his high-powered attorneys could come up with was that somebody else put all of that stuff there.
Because the framing theory was debunked during the trial, though not shown in the documentary, much of the 10 hours doesn’t even focus on Avery, but rather on his 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, who was also implicated in the murder. This is where the filmmakers do their best at making the prosecution look their worst.
Dassey is clearly a low-functioning, mentally-challenged teenager who, according to the prosecution, assisted Avery in raping, torturing, and murdering Halbach. Dassey tells so many variations of what he witnessed it’s impossible for anyone to believe anything he says. Dassey does confess, though the confession comes with questions.
First, the tactics utilized to obtain the confession are questionable, at best. Ricciardi and Demos portray the confession as coerced; a vulnerable boy bullied by hard-nosed, dirty cops and investigators. Second, the confession, as with everything else Dassey says, is patently unbelievable but the prosecution runs with it anyway.
Questions remain still today whether Dassey’s confession should’ve been admissible. He is shown as a sympathetic figure in the documentary, and it’s hard not to believe that he has been taken advantage of by everyone involved, mostly however, by his uncle Steven.
Most viewers who only watch the documentary, and didn’t know anything about the case prior, are incensed at the apparent “injustice” of the “system.” I can’t blame them for that.
They don’t know what was never shown to them.
They never heard about Avery acting inappropriately towards Halbach in prior meetings, or the fact that he called her so much she no longer wanted to meet with him, or that he lured her to his property that day using a disguised phone number and a fake name, or his history of violence against women, or that he routinely voiced fantasies (and drew pictures) about torture chambers and murdering women.
None of this was in “Making a Murderer” because his defense, who the filmmakers were working so closely with, had no answer for any of it.
Also left out is any semblance of sympathy for Teresa Halbach. Other than being the murder victim, she’s barely mentioned. No time spent on the life she lived, and lost. Not one victim advocate is shown talking about the impact her loss had on her family or her community.
Rather, according to Ricciardi and Demos, we’re all supposed to feel sorry for poor Steven Avery. This man, whose preposterous defense was rejected by a jury and every single appellate court since…
This man, who was once a folk hero in Wisconsin, who had laws passed in his honor, who held highly publicized press conferences with state representatives and the governor…
This man, who on a gloomy Halloween day in 2005 brazenly thought to himself, “What are they gonna do, arrest me again?”
In regards to the true crime genre, this is not your typical “Whodunnit?” mystery. That answer has never really been in doubt. Even much of Avery’s own family, including his brother, brother-in-law, multiple nieces and nephews, and his ex-fiancee are all on record stating his guilt.
I do, however, have one thing in common with the quickly fading “Free Avery” crowd. I, too, long for the day Avery is released from prison – as that will also be the day he begins to burn in Hell.
For the full unanimous Court of Appeals decision of the Avery case, see here.
Scott Wittman is a professional Historical Landscape photographer, writer, researcher, and traveler. More of his work can be seen at www.scottwittmanvisual.com.