What “Making A Murderer” Shows About Waiting For A Verdict
Jan. 11, 2016 (Mimesis Law) –I’m writing this at 7 in the morning, and I’ve been up all night binge watching “Making a Murderer.” I could write Fault Line posts about it until Memorial Day (which I won’t, mostly because Greenfield probably wouldn’t let me.) Because they’re able to spend a long time focusing on one case, they are able to fulfill Greenfield’s First Commandment: it doesn’t make people stupider.
I’m going to leave out any spoilers, and acknowledge that in any film (and every other medium, for that matter), one sees exactly what the maker wants you to see; no more, no less. The directors, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, definitely want the audience to conclude that the defendants are innocent. And they convinced me, but intellectual honesty compels the admission that I have no independent basis for that judgment. Every terrible thing (from the defense perspective) that happened in the murder cases of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey might, conceivably, have some sort of reasonable explanation. Except one, but that’s a different post.
There’s one thing that the series does an especially good job with: the wait while the jury deliberates. The combination of tension and boredom is never covered on the screen, or even in books: it always cuts from Sam Waterston or Henry Fonda making their brilliant closing (which never seem to mention the actual evidence) to the judge or the jury foreman reading the verdict. In real life, during that limbo there’s more drama and swings of emotion than in the funeral scene of Julius Caesar.
The jury has already filed out. We stand as the judge leaves the courtroom. I slump down at the table as the deputy cuffs my client. Whatever happens, I’m a real, live, honest-to-God trial lawyer now. Just my luck that my first trial was a rape case. He-said/she-said all the way, and my client didn’t testify, so it’s more like she-said/Noel-said. Great. And my client didn’t help, smirking like he did all day. I try to read the paperback tucked in my briefcase. I’m reading the same paragraph over and over. I wish that I had a laptop and that the courthouse had wi-fi. My supervisor murmurs, “It was a tough case. You did a good job. I’m proud of you.” That helps a little, but I still think the prosecutor kicked my ass. The jury evidently agrees, because they’re back in half an hour. Guilty.
In episode 8, the show spends a good deal of time recording the four days of jury deliberations. What’s striking is how banal it is. The defense attorneys sit at their lap top and read news reports of trial, making stilted conversation about comments that mention them. The defendant’s family is at home, watching TV and waiting by the phone. There’s even a shot of the prosecutor literally twiddling his thumbs.
Six months later. Again wishing for a laptop and wifi. The jury files back in. The prosecutor (this is her first trial) whispers “I’m so nervous!” Internally, I roll my eyes. She doesn’t have anything to be nervous about, though I did get to beat up on the cop pretty good. I’ve never seen anyone turn quite that shade of red, before or since. Not gonna matter, though. About the only victory here is that the jury stayed out for 45 minutes this time. Sure enough, guilty.
How does Schrodinger’s cat feel, before the experiment begins? Yeah, she’s locked up in a box, but the box is warm and comfortable, and maybe there’s a saucer of milk in there, or a ball or yarn. Given the alternatives, maybe it would just be best to stay in the box indefinitely, with no resolution. The box isn’t so bad, is it?
An hour passes. Two. The jury asks for dinner, the judge has some pizzas sent up. The deputies grab one for themselves, and offer me some. I ask if I can give some to my client. They uncuff him, and we sit at the counsel table and chat, as he enjoys his first real food in a year and a half. He thanks me for my hard work. I shrug uncomfortably. “Don’t thank me, you’re the one who’s been locked up.” “Was it worth it?” he asks. “I don’t know, ask me when the jury gets back.”
I offer him another slice, and he declines. “I don’t want to fill up. I talked to my daughter yesterday. She said after I get out, we’re going to Steak and Shake.” Three hours. Four. At least they’re thinking about it, I mutter to myself. This time, I have both a laptop and wifi. It doesn’t help. Now I’m staring at the same screen instead of the same page. At 9:30 pm, the jury comes back. We stand for the verdict. Steak and Shake is out the cost of two meals.
There’s nothing quite like the coexistence of joyful hope and abject terror in one’s mind as the jury is out. The closest analogy is the time after the desperation, 50-yard, last-second, game-winning field goal is kicked and before the refs give the signal. Except that takes seconds, and it’s football. The verdict is real life, and takes much longer. Sometimes, though, you split the uprights.
The trial has gone gloriously. The judge threw out one count at the close of State’s evidence and reduced the other to a misdemeanor. My client testified calmly and effectively, and the only way the State’s witnesses could have been less credible is if they had actually piled out of a clown car. A thirty minute verdict again, but this time it’s two words long.
“YES!” I think to myself. “It took me five goddamn years, but I finally won one of these. To hell with Schrodinger, winning is AWESOME!” Everything seems bright and glorious. I watch my client try to buttonhole the prosecutor into charging the complainant with filing a false report. Trust me, this is hilarious.
There are so many parts of the law that happen that are far more dramatic in the popular eye than in reality. But when it comes to keeping the watch for the verdict, imagination doesn’t come close.
That’s why I still can’t eat at Steak and Shake.