“Making A Murderer” Requires Making A Juror
Jan. 8, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — The Netflix documentary, Making a Murderer, has captured the nation’s attention and turned it to wrongful convictions. Most people simply can’t grasp the possibility of the police arresting the wrong person, the prosecutor prosecuting the wrong person, and a jury convicting the wrong person. Never mind numerous news reports of innocent people being convicted who falsely confessed, were misidentified by eyewitnesses, or were put away by junk “scientific” evidence.
Pop culture comes to the rescue and makes the point all these documented wrongful convictions couldn’t. Making a Murderer is one of the hottest shows around. The documentary follows a Wisconsin criminal case and is highly entertaining.
I won’t ruin the story with spoilers, but here are the basic facts. Steven Avery was arrested for rape and convicted in 1985. After spending 18 years in prison, DNA evidence exonerated him and he was released. At worst, the cops framed him. At best, they ignored any evidence that didn’t point to him. Either way, this was a bad case and a bad conviction. The misconduct made him a poster boy for the wrongful conviction movement.
The story didn’t end happily. A few years after his release, and during his lawsuit against the police who screwed up his first case, Avery was accused of murdering a young lady named Teresa Halbach. He was convicted at trial and is now serving a life sentence. Making a Murderer was filmed as the second case developed. Avery went from a victim to a rogue. After the attention his case gained from the show, Avery was back to being cast as a victim.
What is most interesting about the Making a Murderer phenomenon is the country’s reaction to it. Shock at the overreaching police officers. Outrage at the unfair prosecutors. Frustration at an incompetent defense lawyer. As with most wrongful conviction cases, there is little attention paid to the people who actually convicted Avery: the jurors.
The most frustrating part of a criminal trial is how easily jurors swallow what they are fed by the government. No matter how outlandish the evidence is, or how inconsistent the facts are, jurors usually buy it. They align themselves with the “good guys” and make sure to punish the guilty. Jurors are quick to jump right over obvious logical flaws in a case as long as they land on a conviction. As the prosecutor in Making a Murderer says at one point, “reasonable doubt is for the innocent.”
Is this blind adherence to the “law and order” side of the justice system changing? Maybe. And if it’s not, it should be. Making a Murderer gives us a nice little ten-hour primer on exactly what we have created when it comes to crime and punishment. Because make no mistake, we created it. And by “we,” I mean the jurors who have repeatedly refused to hold the prosecution to its burden of proof. Every time prosecutors get a pass on a case and a person gets convicted, the system ends up with a Steven Avery. There is no question he was innocent of his first conviction. There is a lot of debate about the second one. But it is pretty clear the case that led to his current life sentence is full of doubts. And those doubts are what drives people crazy about the show.
A big part of the case against Avery is his nephew’s confession to the crime. Brendan Dassey, a 16-year-old who seems a little slow, claimed he was involved in the crime and points to Avery as the mastermind. The confession is borderline nonsense. It’s full of inconsistencies and clearly suggested by the officers taking it. You can actually see how it develops, despite the unlikelihood it has any validity. How could an innocent person ever confess to a horrible crime? Watch the show. The answer unfolds right in front of you.
DNA. This is the gold standard of evidence. For every exoneration, it convicts countless people. It can’t be wrong. If DNA says you were there, well, you must have been there. But it can be planted. And if you don’t understand how, Making a Murderer will show you.
Police who make evidence fit their beliefs are a big part of most wrongful convictions. It’s so obvious in this show that it’s uncomfortable to watch at times. Testimony reflected police playing games with the evidence. They had made up their mind Avery was guilty before they were even sure what the crime was.
All of this evidence had holes poked in it. The weaknesses were put on display by Avery’s defense team. Law enforcement was clearly trying to make sure Avery was convicted, as opposed to making sure the perpetrator was found. At the end of the day, why didn’t the jury protect Avery?
The answer is difficult. For all of the causes of wrongful convictions, we forget that a jury ultimately stamped the ticket to jail. Sometimes they didn’t have all of the information. Sometimes bad evidence was put in front of them. But sometimes they just err to the side of caution, which means putting away the guy on trial.
Most people simply don’t have the guts required to make our criminal justice system something more than a giant grinder for poor people with terrible fortune. In your living room it’s no problem directing outrage at the little screen in the corner. On Facebook and Twitter, it’s pretty easy to post your disappointment at the system.
It’s a little harder to sit in a courtroom and tell the great and powerful government it is wrong. Looking at a crying victim and sending them away without a pound of flesh is difficult. Normal people don’t want to risk sending a criminal back on the streets, even while doubting he is actually a criminal.
Mark Twain said, “it ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble… [i]t’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” For a long time, people have known for sure that the police get their man and the prosecutors finish him off. Jurors are just there to confirm what we all know; if someone gets arrested, they must have done something. But that ain’t so and it’s causing problems.
Maybe a popular show will do what defense lawyers haven’t been able to. Maybe a clever documentary will convince people of a prosecution’s fallibility where hundreds of news reports couldn’t.
Hopefully all of these people chattering about Steven Avery’s unfair trial won’t forget all of this when they get called to serve at the next trial. If they start to realize those doubts in the back of their heads have both real causes and real consequences and shouldn’t be ignored, the justice system might end up with a little more justice.