Television: The War and Peace of crime documentaries

Making a Murderer, which is available on Netflix, is the War and Peace of true crime documentaries. It tells the convoluted story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man falsely imprisoned for rape in 1985, exonerated in 2003 and then tried for the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach. The documentary implies Avery is innocent. The viewer may well infer that he was persecuted by the police because of a lawsuit he brought against local officials. This reviewer found the approach taken by the filmmakers rather troubling.

A large part of the problem is that the prosecution wouldn’t cooperate with the documentary, which means we overwhelmingly hear from the defence. (One defence lawyer, who has become somewhat of a celeb in his own right – Jerry Buting – is a devout Catholic.) Too much time is spent on recounting the horrific miscarriage of justice that surrounded Avery’s false rape charge, prejudicing us emotionally towards finding him innocent of the later allegation of murder. Outrageous procedural errors and abuses – such as the treatment of Avery’s nephew, who clearly suffers from cognitive disability – eclipse evidence of potential guilt.

A worrying example of how the filmmakers let Avery speak for himself unchallenged is his description of an animal cruelty charge he received as a youth. Avery says that he was fooling around with friends and a cat caught on fire. According to the Associated Press, he was actually accused of pouring gasoline on the animal and throwing it in a bonfire.

Having said all of that, reasonable doubt exists – and not just about Avery’s case. American society itself is put on trial. We see a community that identifies and marginalises outsiders, where the powerful use the law to act out personal feuds; constitutional rights are disregarded in pursuit of social order. This is not a uniquely American tragedy. In Britain, the police have acted dishonourably in sexual abuse cases – towards both perpetrators and victims.

Given that justice is so hard to obtain in a fallen world, we need to protect individual liberty ever more. The accused and the convicted have human rights. This powerful, if flawed, series reminds us of that.