Saturday, January 16, 2016

Critical Analysis - Making A Murderer and The Presumption of Innocence

Everybody has an agenda; doesn't matter if it's politics, law, television, news, everybody has an agenda. Certainly that's what the makers of the Netflix produced documentary, Making A Murderer would have you believe about the Manitowoc county police department in Wisconsin. They may very well be right. The 10 episode series does an excellent job of showing the potential for abuse, misconduct, bias, and corruption in the police force and justice system during two criminal cases involving Steven Avery.

At one point in time during the court case, it's revealed that a memo was sent to forensic examiner Sherry Culhane, allegedly telling her to make the evidence place murder victim Teresa Halbach in the house or garage of Avery. There were many other instances where similar messages or circumstances were in play. If all this information is to be believed and taken at its face value, it could easily be the case that a large part of the Manitowoc county police department had their minds made up that Steven Avery either was guilty and it needed to be proven by any means necessary, or they were specifically targeting him out of bias and financial concern over his multi-million dollar lawsuit regarding a previous wrongful conviction on a rape charge that resulted in an 18 year imprisonment.

It becomes quite clear though that the filmmakers, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, believe that Avery is an innocent man who was deliberately set up to be convicted of murder, so his lawsuit against the county would vanish, along with Avery's restored good name. And even if by chance, the film makers don't believe that, the series is certainly presented to emphasize the innocence of Avery, or at very least that the justice system was predisposed against him.

Various pieces of prosecutorial evidence was left out of the documentary, perhaps the most damning of which is a prior history of harassing behavior from Avery towards Halbach. According to the prosecution, Avery had called the AutoTrader company that Halbach worked as a photographer for and specifically requested her to come take photos that day of the cars on his property. Halbach did not want to go near him again as he had previously greeted her at his door with him dressed in nothing but a towel. Furthermore, the request to have Halbach come to the Avery Body Shop that day was allegedly made by Steven with him giving a different name and phone number to potentially avoid Halbach denying the request to do the job.

Several websites have reported things in more detail. An article from Pajiba.com written by Dustin Rowles includes a transcript of a phone call between Avery's alleged accomplice, his nephew Brendan Dassey, and Dassey's mother. In that transcript Dassey states that Avery had touched him inappropriately on several occasions. Does this have any direct impact on the murder case? Not exactly, but it is information that the filmmakers chose to exclude from their program in order to present Avery in the best light possible. Don't forget, they do later describe special prosecutor Ken Krantz sexting scandal, something that also was not relevant to the Avery case, in order to present him as a more reprehensible person.

Is Steven Avery guilty? Is he not guilty? I don't know; based on my experience studying law I don't think I could've found him guilty in a court of law based on the evidence presented since there is reasonable doubt. That's one of the things that need to be taken from this documentary more than anything, the concept of reasonable doubt and presumption of innocence.

We're taught in science and in life that we're supposed to approach things with an open mind and see all sides fairly. Most of the time, those are wise words to live by. There's an exception to this though; in a court of law, we are supposed to be biased, biased in favor of the accused. Literally we're legally obligated to think, "This person is innocent; this evidence needs to concretely prove his guilt."

In Avery's case, here are the things that lead me to conclude I'd have to find him "not guilty."

1) The Manitowoc County police department stood to lose a tremendous amount in credibility and money based on the previous false conviction of Avery and his pending civil suit against them. Given the history between him and the police it is not unlikely that there was some sort of vendetta.

2) A sample of James Avery's blood had the tamper proof seal disturbed and a needle sized hole in the vial's stopper, indicating blood had been extracted from the tube.

3) The Avery Body Shop was searched multiple times over an extended period of time with a stipulation that the Maintowoc police department was not supposed to be involved in it. The county not only did get involved, but it was one of their officers that found the key to Ms. Halbach's vehicle after multiple searches before that revealed nothing.

4) The investigators in charge of the interrogation and questioning of Brendan Dassey, Avery's nephew, forced a confession out of him that was highly questionable given the amount of information and guilt they put in his head. It was a disgusting display of mental/emotional abuse of a mentally challenged young man.

5) Several other miscellaneous oddities in the behavior of police officers, ranging from an officer seemingly knowing the year and model of a car when he's calling in a license plate number but also not in the location of the vehicle, instructing a forensics officer to to make sure evidence places the victim in the home/garage of the defendant, and getting the FBI to quickly administer an unreliable blood testing procedure that they had stopped administering exactly because of how unreliable it was.

As many of us have seen in the news, there is an issue in some precincts of police brutality, bias, cover-ups, and a code of brotherhood that helps keep wrongdoings under wraps. Is this true everywhere? Good lord no. It's very important to stress that a majority of cops are honest, well-intentioned upholders of justice. But I also believe based on various incidents reported through the years that if there is corruption in the force, and you make an enemy of a corrupt precinct, you're in deep shit; for lack of a better phrase.

I don't doubt that it is very much possible that Steven Avery made himself an enemy of the Manitowoc county police. Not saying it actually happened, but I'm saying it's possible enough to make me believe Avery may be innocent.

You can't take Making A Murderer at face value given that it's very much presenting as favorable a view of Avery as it can. Still, given that we're supposed to presume Avery is innocent going into the trial, there's still a lot that can be taken from watching this program. Compare this to a program run by one of the very few people in media that I truly find to be despicable: Nancy Grace.

Grace is a former prosecutor turned television host who has worked on numerous shows, including her self-titled show that airs on HLN. I've had the misfortune of watching this woman time and time again verbally convict someone of a crime without full knowledge of their guilt or innocence. She has little regard for anyone who disagrees with her or presents dissenting opinions, she's even criticized her own guests, talked over them, and put words in their mouth for presenting information and then accusing them of defending someone. Like literally she invited someone on the show to discuss a case about a young female teen murdering a class mate, and after he started trying to say what the defense attorneys in the case were probably going to do, she accused him of defending and justifying the acts of a disturbed little girl.

So just to recap that, she brings in someone to represent the viewpoint of a defense attorney, disregards the information he presents, accuses him of holding the viewpoints himself when he was just presenting them, and then condemns the defendant as guilty without a trial.

Nancy Grace paints herself as being "pro-victim." A victim, whether they're alive or dead, is entitled to justice for what they suffered through. Justice is making sure that the right person faces their day in court and is convicted of the crime they are guilty of. Justice is not demonizing or casting guilt on someone outside of a trial. Justice is not throwing away the presumption of innocence and not letting evidence do its job. Justice is making sure that the defense is given the tools they are needed to serve their client while also making sure that the prosecution plays by the rules. When a trial is over, there should be no doubt as to a person's guilt. But if you're not in the courtroom, if you're not the one hearing all the evidence by both sides, you need to assume the person in question is innocent.

Look at what happened with Making A Murderer. Before that program aired, if you watched the news, Nancy Grace included, you would've heard nothing but the "fact" that Steven Avery is a guilty man. Now that Making A Murderer has aired, many people are declaring it a fact that Steven Avery is not guilty or at the very least, there's reasonable doubt as to his guilt.

Where's the truth? It's certainly not spewing from the mouths of judgmental, biased mouthpieces like Nancy Grace. It's not coming from filmmakers like Ricciardi and Demos. Truth isn't necessarily being spoken by the defendant, nor is it guaranteed to be coming from the police and the district attorney. Truth is something that exists only within the combination of events and information that completely surround and permeate the circumstances of a given time. Even if you see or witness something, it's not necessarily true since there could be circumstances you don't know about, or things may not have happened the way you remember them.


The perception and search for the truth would be a far more entertaining thing to contemplate if it weren't for the fact that the fate of people's lives hinge on it every day. It may be cliche to state it, but things aren't always as they appear to be. Making A Murderer shows this about the Manitowoc County Police while other facts of the case reveal the same thing about Making A Murderer; things aren't as they appear.

The only real defense someone has going into a trial is the idea that they are innocent, and the evidence needs to show beyond ANY REASONABLE doubt, that they are guilty. This is more important than ever when you have television pundits that throw guilt around without regard for the lives at stake and prosecutors are more concerned with arresting someone for a crime rather than the actual guilty party. As hard as it might be, we all need to approach accused individuals as innocent people and progress from there. Your innocence is yours to have and yours to discard if you commit a crime; it's no one else's to take from you...so don't take it away from others without a fair trial.


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