The bulk of Making a Murderer, Netflix’s new ten-part docuseries from filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, takes place nearly ten years ago, but the saga of rural Wisconsin’s Avery family and its horrifying experience with the criminal justice system feels perfectly suited to 2015. Over the past few years, the American public has grown more skeptical of law enforcement, and been given more tangible reasons to do so, than it has in decades. This heartbreaking, infuriating, essential series feels like the first recent work of true crime to both reflect that and reinforce it.
At the center of Making a Murderer is Steven Avery, a Manitowoc County resident wrongfully convicted of rape who served 18 years in prison prior to his exoneration based on DNA evidence. After his release, Avery filed a $36 million civil suit against the county; mere days after key members of its sheriff’s department were deposed, Teresa Halbach, a woman from a neighboring county who visited the Avery family salvage yard the day of her disappearance, went missing. Repeated searches yielded seemingly damning physical evidence on the property. Hours of interrogation, without a parent present, resulted in a confession from Avery’s mentally incapacitated nephew, Brendan Dassey. (Both he and his uncle have IQs in the low 70s.) And just like that, Avery went straight back into the belly of a system dead-set against him.
As the title suggests, Demos and Ricciardi’s sympathies lie squarely with Steven and Brendan. Their primary interviews are with Steven, who spoke with them at length over the phone from prison, his family, and his defense attorneys, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting; dozens of secondary interviews with other attorneys and experts reveal the extent to which both investigative and judicial protocol was violated at every step of a nearly two year long process. (In an interview with Vulture, Demos and Ricciardi revealed that the Halbach family declined to be interviewed for the series.) The result is, quite literally, hard to watch, ten hours of excruciating injustice that only grows more egregious with each episode.
These are strong words, but it’s impossible to take in Making a Murderer, particularly in a contemporary context, without experiencing a near-visceral reaction. Here are just a few of the details — spoiler alert — laid out by Demos and Ricciardi, whose diligent and meticulous work no review could fully replicate: a key to Teresa’s car is found in plain view in Steven’s bedroom, even though multiple prior searches failed to recover it; said key contains Steven’s DNA, but none from the woman who owned and used the car for years; a vial of Steven’s blood in the state’s possession shows evidence of tampering via hypodermic needle. Steven’s fiancée, a parolee, is barred from contacting him and repeatedly arrested until she breaks things off with him on her own accord. Brendan’s appointed lawyer and his investigator effectively collaborate with the prosecution, refusing to accept a written statement denying his involvement and demanding he draw Teresa tied up on Steven’s bed. The list goes on and on and on, through guilty verdicts and failed appeals, until we learn that both men are still in prison, where Steven has spent more than half of his life. (End of spoilers.)
It’s impossible not to view Making of a Murderer through the lens of our society’s renewed focus on police brutality and misconduct, and more general concerns about the criminal justice system as a whole. To state the obvious, Steven Avery is not a person of color, and his experience at the hands of Manitowoc County does not connect directly with the shootings and other forms of abuse documented and protested by Black Lives Matter. But he is an individual at a massive power disadvantage to the state. The Averys are poor — Steven can only afford his legal fees thanks to the settlement of his civil suit — and isolated from their community both socially and physically, living on a de facto compound adjacent to their salvage yard. Steven earned an automatic assumption of guilt from the sheriff’s department when he confronted a cousin married to a law enforcement officer more than 30 years ago, an incident Avery himself admits was wrong yet certainly didn’t merit false accusations of rape and murder as an indirect result. He’s been without the resources to shake it ever since.
What Avery has in 2015 that he didn’t at the time of his original trial, not that it makes a material difference to him, is an audience more receptive to his claims, and those of others at a fundamental disadvantage to the twin institutions of the cops and the courts. “The police, many people, outside of large cities at least, are raised to believe are the good guys,” Strang admits at the end of Making a Murderer‘s sixth episode. “And for many Americans, their experiences with the police essentially confirm the idea that the police are the good guys.”
While the communities that benefit from policing versus those who don’t hasn’t changed, what has is the sheer visibility of law enforcement’s various abuses of power. One of the most remarkable facets of Black Lives Matter, as writer Jay Caspian Kang noted in his New York Times Magazine profile of two of the movement’s most prominent organizers, is that the numbers of shootings haven’t gone up — the attention we pay to them, thanks to cold, hard proof provided by the cameras and global connections many of us carry in our pockets, has. And suddenly, a whole part of America that previously would never have witnessed police misconduct firsthand — the part, frankly, that’s most likely to watch a ten-hour documentary on an Internet-based streaming service with a monthly subscription fee — is far more aware of systemic injustice than they were even five years ago.
This is what ultimately makes Making a Murder feel more contemporary than 2015’s other major works of true crime, or even fictional crime. Serial was ultimately inconclusive on the question of Adnan’s innocence; The Jinx didn’t just side with, but actively aided law enforcement in the capture of Robert Durst. (As for legendary, wrongful conviction-centric works like The Thin Blue Line, Demos and Ricciardi point out that those typically end with exoneration.) And then there’s the massive body of cop-vs.-criminal procedurals, like Law and Order or even Brooklyn Nine-Nine. It could be argued that the latter is a utopian vision of a diverse, community-oriented police force that almost critiques by contrast, but as a whole, both fiction and nonfiction about the criminal justice system putting bad guys away has started to feel increasingly out of step with the times.
Enter Making a Murderer, which channels the current zeitgeist through an unwavering portrait of police work gone horribly wrong. Steven Avery’s story is an outrage and a tragedy. Hopefully, we’re finally in a place to internalize it.