Netflix had for a long time stuck to the world of fiction when it came to spinning stories for its original programming. The departure of Making a Murderer from this formula has resulted in the show becoming one of Netflix’s most-talked-about to date — as well as its most controversial.
NPR, meanwhile, had a hit of its own with Serial — a, well, serialized podcast that told the story of the murder of Hae Min Lee. It sounds straightforward enough, but when you consider the fact that even some of the basic facts presented in Sarah Koenig’s podcast are still not considered beyond reproach, you have the makings of a controversy.
What these two shows have in common — including their impact on the future of investigative journalism — is so far up in the air. But posterity may just remember these two shows as the artistic endeavors that democratized crime-solving.
In this, part one of two, let’s take a look at Making a Murderer and whether it stands a chance of changing television.
What Is Making a Murderer?
First, the basics.
Making a Murderer is a ten-part documentary that debuted on Netflix late in 2015. The brainchild of Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, the series tells the story of Steven Avery, who served time for the assault and attempted murder of Penny Beerntsen in 1985. Avery was later exonerated of that crime in 2003, but was arrested two years later in 2005 on suspicion of murdering another woman, Teresa Halbach. He was convicted in 2007.
Filmed over ten years, the documentary and its story captivated the entire nation, even giving rise to a White House petition for President Obama to pardon Avery, with nearly 130,000 signatures. The White House said its hands were tied, as Avery’s is a state case.
Why the Controversy?
Steven Avery’s story was always destined to become a controversy. At the time of his trial, the case was riddled with accusations of conflicts of interest and a lack of investigative integrity. Presented in ten serialized episodes, Making a Murderer has no interest in sitting on the sidelines. It comes across as a strong call to arms for criminal justice crusaders everywhere, including the Innocence Project, which helped to exonerate Avery during his first trip through the courts.
A tell-all about a lapse in American jurisprudence is not itself particularly surprising or novel. The true crime genre, along with more traditional documentaries, have often provided a “court of last resort” for people who have been unjustly accused of a crime they did not commit. Nevertheless, the controversy even now still swirling around Making a Murderer comes not from the form but from its execution.
Two Sides to Every Story
One of the loudest responses to the film has come from the camp of the prosecution, including Ken Kratz, the former district attorney from Calumet County. Kratz led the prosecution against Avery, and after Making a Murderer made its debut, he claimed publically he had never been given an opportunity to air his side of the case in the production.
Kratz claims Ricciardi and Demos’ documentary left out key pieces of evidence in order to tilt the narrative in Avery’s favor. He even cites digital and genetic evidence. The filmmakers deny this.
Meanwhile, the response from Avery’s defense team was, by comparison, a glowing testimonial for the filmmakers’ skills. But perhaps the most scathing response came from the Halbachs — Teresa’s surviving family. They stated they were “saddened” that corporations and American culture continue to profit from their loss. They, like the prosecutors, maintained their belief Avery was guilty.
Has Making a Murder Left Its Mark?
The question we’re here to answer is whether, and to what extent, Making a Murderer has changed the way we digest, and even interpret, ongoing criminal investigations.
The show was a bona-fide cultural phenomenon, this is true, turning average Americans everywhere into “desktop detectives,” poring over details of the case. And that’s fine. What’s a little harder to brook is how successfully a work of creative entertainment can create self-styled experts of its viewers, even without a convincing consensus on how fair it’s been to both parties involved in the case.
Part of the trouble here is the fact that the “court of last result” has run headlong into the “court of public opinion” and resulted in a terrific mess. Like any contentious criminal case, Avery’s long and sordid history with the criminal justice system is as convoluted as it is uncertain — and “Making a Murderer,” to hear some of the more serious critics tell it, does little to iron things out.
If anything, the documentary has muddled the conversation to the point that public opinion will almost certainly always be split — with half of the viewers convinced Avery is guilty as sin, and the other half believing he was framed.
The filmmakers, for their part, maintain they have no opinion on Avery’s guilt or innocence, and they were simply trying to tell the story as they saw it.
That, at the end of the day, might be the lesson here: Making a Murderer was intense and visceral because of the almost total lack of distance it has from its subjects. The show, far from attempting to dismantle controversy, revels in it.
It’s always a good thing when the public takes an interest in potential cases of mistaken identity, wrongful imprisonment, and other judicial aberrations. But the fact that Making a Murderer was so divisive calls into question just what kind of role the “creative mediums” should have in still-fresh murder investigations.
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