'Making A Murderer' Part 2: Why There’s No Justice In Trial By Docuseries
As the much-anticipated second instalment of Making A Murderer premieres this month on Netflix, the prestige true-crime documentary cements its place at the top of the culture plinth.
Its power is undoubtedly in the thrill of a crime unsolved, the drama of a wrong righted, and the youthful joy of playing detective to uncover some essential “truth”.
The question of “what is the truth?” seems evermore relevant in Making A Murderer Part Two, which has debuted just three years after the original surprise colossal hit for Netflix. It’s arrived with all the fanfare of the first series, but none of its finesse.
In 2015 Making A Murderer Part One caught the attention of viewers fascinated by the ungodly misfortunes of Steven Avery, a middle American man who, he claimed, was twice convicted of a crime he did not commit. The first time, Avery was imprisoned for 18 years for rape, a crime it turns out he didn't commit, and for which he was exonerated when DNA evidence helped nab the real culprit.
Then, in 2005, Avery was arrested again: this time for the rape and murder of photographer Teresa Halbach. Halbach’s remains and her vehicle were found on Avery’s property, and he was detained during a focused investigation. The Manitowoc County Sheriff’s department, with which Avery was legally battling over his first wrongful imprisonment, was barred from running the case. However, they were there at every critical stage in the investigative process, when DNA, remains and key pieces of evidence were uncovered on Avery's property.
Then, Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, a mentally disabled 17-year-old boy, was pulled in for questioning, and eventually confessed to helping Avery rape, torture and murder Halbach, and then burn her body. It’s a tragic moment because, if true, the story is a horrific, blunt ending for Halbach; and also because you get the sense Dassey has no clue what he's just admitted to.
The first season ends with Avery and Dassey convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Creators Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos mark the moment as a severe injustice, and perhaps it is: the way they have laid out the case certainly appears as though both Avery and Dassey have been victims of a system that is unfairly bent against them. As to whether they’re actually involved in Halbach's murder, as a viewer I ended the season suspicious of their actual innocence.
Apparently, I was in the minority here. Once the series picked up its devoted viewership, many a subreddit was born dedicated to solving the mystery of who really killed Halbach, and a Change.org petition circulated calling for the US President to exonerate Avery and Dassey. More sinister still, waves of death threats rolled in to anyone the docuseries had painted as a villain against Avery and Dassey’s interests. This 10-part series wielded an intense amount of power.
For better or worse, Netflix ordered a second instalment. Plodding, ill-conceived and uncomfortably messy, the second season unwittingly becomes a referendum on the ethics of the true-crime series and the efficacy of the docu-vigilante. Without any regulations governing what these documentarians can present in a one-sided quest for justice, how can any viewer be expected to read through the rhetoric?
Unfortunately, as Part Two rolls around, precious little about Avery and Dassey’s circumstances has changed. There are two post-conviction lawyers from the Northwestern Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth trying desperately to advance Dassey’s appeal through the complex Missouri state courts. But primarily we trot step-by-step alongside the show’s newest martyr for truth: Avery’s post-conviction lawyer Kathleen Zellner. And, boy, is Zellner is a character.
Imagine a hard-headed defence lawyer with Sherlock Holmes’ thirst for detective work, Donald Trump’s inclination to tweet outlandishly, and the looks of Anjelica Huston circa The Witches. That’s Zellner, and she takes on Avery’s case (only after seeing Ricciardi and Demos’ docuseries) with all the force of a tropical hurricane.
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Apparently convinced of Avery’s innocence, Zellner rents a Toyota hatchback identical to Halbach’s recovered vehicle and drives around Manitowoc County, morbidly retracing Halbach’s steps. She cuts an odd but convincing figure, punting for Avery, and throws outlandish alternative theories for Halbach’s murder left and right, in between recreating some sickening moments of her death -- including the brutal disposal of her body in the back of the hatchback.
Amid many tedious rehashings of the first series -- including dour replays of old footage, minutes-long photo montages and seemingly endless “yeah, yeah”-punctured phone conversations between Avery's family -- Zellner’s bizarre, bolshie detective mission stands out as utterly television-worthy. And no one can argue she isn’t doing her job: a defence attorney is supposed to shoot down the state’s case.
But here’s the essential problem of the vigilante with an agenda: a documentary, no matter how thorough, is not a courtroom trial. A defence lawyer in a real trial is allowed to present such an outlandish, one-sided defence because there’s a prosecution on the other side to say, “Hold on, have you considered this?”
But in Making A Murderer, all we see is the meticulously constructed case for Avery and Dassey -- not just as men who have been railroaded by a broken system, but also as men who are totally innocent of the murder of Halbach.
There’s barely anyone on the other side, punting for the prosecution -- or for Halbach, the murdered woman at the centre of this story who we often forget is the real victim in Making A Murderer. And, yes, perhaps it’s because the Halbachs, along with many of Teresa’s friends, declined to participate in the series. But considering Ricciardi and Damos’s angle on the story -- wouldn’t you?
In her subtle critique of Making A Murderer’s first season, the New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz interviewed Penny Beernsten, the woman who first wrongfully accused Avery of rape. Beernsten is an incredible woman, tragically apologetic for the role she had in Avery’s initial misfortune. Still, when she was asked by Ricciardi and Demos to be involved in Making A Murderer, she declined. “I didn’t feel they were journalists seeking the truth,” she told Schulz. “I felt like they had a foregone conclusion and were looking for a forum in which to express it.”
Ricciardi and Demos have every right to believe Avery and Dassey, but how they present their belief to the public is significant – especially when the public is so motivated to get involved in the story.
In the first season of true-crime podcast Serial, in which Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder and Dana Chivvis examine the 1999 case of murdered teen Hae Min Lee and her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, who was convicted of her murder, Koenig candidly reveals the three of them “flipped back and forth” in their belief of Syed’s innocence. Nevertheless, as the podcast draws to a close, Koenig attests, “As a juror I vote to acquit Adnan Syed.”
As a person, though, Koenig admits she had doubts. “I feel like shaking everyone by the shoulders like an aggravated cop,” she said. “Just tell me the facts, ma’am. Because we didn’t have them 15 years ago and we still don’t have them now.”
The facts, all of them, are still what’s missing in Making a Murderer Part Two. And that would be fine in any series that presented answers as ephemeral; but for two docu-vigilantes trying to prove a point, this is a problem.
So Ricciardi and Demos obfuscate and manipulate, playing our heartstrings to misdirect us from the mud at the centre of the Halbach murder.
What seemed disconcertingly one-sided and a little irresponsible in season one becomes graspingly extreme in season two -- though it’s unclear whether Ricciardi and Demos quite realise this. Still, in one of the season’s most deeply ironic moments, they show a protester screaming from the courthouse steps: “Don’t let Netflix tell you what to do!”