This is the day late and nearly a dollar short response to the Netflix series Making a Murderer, which would be more aptly named “Making a Muckraker“.
While a little slow to throw our hat in the ring, we too have something to say about Making a Murderer, the series garnering enthusiastic outrage from conspiracy theorists everywhere. This series and its executive producers aim to critically review the criminal justice system, its failings, and the particular case of Steven Avery. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, the executive producers, must have been thrilled to board the gravy train of murder crime “journaltainment”, a path well paved by the powerhouse Serial. What an opportunity to highlight serious issues with the criminal justice system that impacts all of us! What a journey we can go on together!
Perhaps some of you dear readers are from the Badger State and can hearken back to the 2005 passage of the “Avery Bill” that was to address criminal justice reforms (renamed criminal justice reforms bill). Perhaps you’ve also viewed the Netflix series Making a Murderer. And perhaps you’ll recall the sense of injustice and righteous indignation you first felt when you started to understand that the criminal justice system prosecuted the wrong person for a sexual assault crime. And maybe you were outraged at how the very same system appears to be continually persecuting, in addition to prosecuting, a maligned and sympathetic character whose first crime was being poor and “from the wrong side of the tracks”. And his mother! How can you not feel for her? And I too, friends, fell in the same honey trap of pity and outrage when my partner, who is naturally suspicious of authority, strongly encouraged my viewing of Making a Murderer after he was 3 episodes in. Many an outraged comment was uttered as EPs Ricciardi and Demos paint a picture of the criminal masterminds that are the Manitowoc and Calumet County criminal justice system representatives. As an avowed feminist, I am also predisposed to mistrust systems of authority. I was ready to grab my pitchfork and join the outraged Netflix subscribing masses… until approximately midway through episode one. The producers then present the relationship between Avery and ex-wife Lori Mathieson, including the presentation of letters written to Mathieson from Avery while in prison threatening to kill her. It became crystal clear to me at that point that the Avery image was being actively curated to minimize his violent history, serving the David and Goliath narrative. In the rest of the viewing of the series, there were various facts and passionate pleas coming from the Avery camp (which includes the producers despite their public stances) to take his side in the epic story of Man against the Machine. And folks, people went nuts for this stuff. Petitions were signed, presidents were contacted, celebrities weighed in, conversations everywhere included the name Avery. Facebook went wild. Here’s the problem though- Avery did sexually assault people and he, likely accurately, was found guilty of murder. I’m not going to even mention the murder victim’s name because her family deserves a break from being dragged into the public. So here are my general concerns presented by the success of this series:
- Brendan Dassey reported being sexually abused by Avery as a minor. Reportedly other victims came forward who were scared of Avery, including his former fiancé who is featured in the series. Wisconsin state statutes for this crime, depending on age, on the conservative end state the penalty is no more than 40 years of imprisonment. While wholly understanding the sensationalism of what I’m about to write and why it is problematic, my opinion is that Avery did not sit enough time in jail for the crime of sexual assault. They just didn’t catch him for the right one. Sexual assault is deeply underreported and rarely prosecuted consistently in this state. I’m not saying people should be falsely accused and sit time for crimes they didn’t commit. I’m saying this creepy-ass man who killed cats and who was violent towards women and children earned his prison time despite the bumbling and incomplete efforts of a rural, low-resourced criminal justice system.
- The other facts around the murder that the jury considered in finding Avery guilty were conveniently left out of Making a Murderer. I won’t bore you with all of them but here’s a basic Google search.
- Much ado about something revolved around having female producers. “Isn’t it exciting that women are competent and capable of doing good work?” exclaimed the general public. “These women are really making a mess of the facts,” said others. “How can these women sympathize with the murderer/rapist character?” you may be tempted to ask yourself. After all, all women are the same and walk in lockstep like all men do. So I guess I’m just annoyed that it was a big deal that women made this, regardless of the acclaim or criticism received, because I wish we were post-patriarchy. The fact that the gender of the “producestresses” needs to be addressed confirms where we’re at today.
- Part of the narrative of the Making a Murderer series requires the conspiracy theorist to believe that poor people can’t be complicated or capable of the elaborate power and control tactics that Avery arguably wielded. The sympathetic narrative begs the viewer to believe that Avery was a poor sweet dumb-dumb who couldn’t have possibly committed those acts because of his mother! He likes gardening! The simple life! The man! How classist to believe that people without a college education can’t wield power and control.
- Part of the series involves acknowledging that Avery tried to appeal his murder conviction all the way up the chain and at no point did the courts accept his challenge. You’re left with a hint that the conspiracy goes all the way to the top. They’re all corrupt! Take a minute to process that. This series is based on insinuating the premise that the criminal justice system is actively stacked against Avery, including planting evidence. To carry the premise forward, all of the people in all of the courts involved in this case had to be in on the job. Just no. That’s not a real thing.
- You guys, people are making a lot of bomb threats to the Manitowoc County criminal justice premises. Seriously? That’s the takeaway from all of this?
- Should we really consume “journaltainment” when crime victims are involved? Things that make you go squirm.
So even after reading all this, you want to be a muckraker, more power to you! Here are some tips and lessons from Making a Murderer that will improve your efficacy:
- Know your facts for real.
- Critically consume your entertainment and don’t just sign petitions because it popped up on your Facebook feed and you heard someone say something about it once.
- Speak out consistently about injustices committed against all people when it is appropriate to do so. (For example, DON’T be the first man to speak loudly about women’s issues in a room full of women. DO be the first man to speak loudly about women’s issues in a room full of men.)
- Don’t call in bomb threats to protest the incompetence of a rural community’s law enforcement. Because wasting more public resources and police time I’m sure will absolutely improve their timely, professional, and consistent response to crime victims. Come on.
- Hold yourself accountable to the same standard you hold others. And keep that bar high please. Because stones thrown in a glass house…and all that.