I admit it. I got hooked on the podcast Serial last year and binge-listened to all 12 episodes in one weekend. Really, if you aren’t one of the 68 million people who downloaded the podcast already, go do it now. When you’re done, just remember to write a letter of appreciation to my editor.
Given my infatuation with Serial, Netflix’s 10-part documentary “Making a Murderer” became a must-watch. Apparently, I’m not the only one who had it queued up to binge-stream. Over the past month, the documentary spurred countless debates across the country on the criminal justice system. It has even led to an organized effort asking Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to commute the sentence of the man in the middle of it all.
Here’s the very brief background, with minimal spoilers: in 1985 Steven Avery, a poor, ill-educated Wisconsin man was arrested by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department for sexual assault. After 18 years, DNA evidence exonerated Avery. Two years later, the same sheriff’s department arrested Avery for the murder of a young woman. Convicted at trial, Avery is set to spend the rest of his life in prison.
The controversy arises from the circumstances surrounding Avery’s arrest and trial for murder. And, for Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, the filmmakers, their portrayal of the process.
Just as he did 20 years before, Avery maintained his innocence. While evidence seemed to pile up around him, he never wavered. In fact, he accused the very men who arrested him of planting evidence and framing him. One of the most amusing moments in the whole documentary is when his two very good attorneys discuss exactly how dismayed they are to rely on that defense.
Of course, as the case proceeds, inconsistencies and conflicts of interest highlighted by the film crew buttress the theory. As the tape rolls on, the “cops-framed-me” defense shifts from desperate reaction to theory with potential to a twisted-gut feeling that a grave injustice has been done. Again.
And, for me, that is where the documentary diverges from the detached journalism that set Serial apart. Host Sarah Koenig’s story remained neutral and balanced. While she never hid her personal, inner struggle over the case, she also didn’t fail to give equal measure to both sides. Where holes in Adnan Sayed’s story emerged, she pushed through them just as readily as the prosecution’s theory. She pursued truth and let her listeners decide. In contrast, “Making a Murderer” strongly leads its viewers down one path; it is unmistakable that Ricciardi and Demos have a pre-determined outcome in mind.
At best, it is advocacy journalism that sacrifices objectivity for moral grandstanding. At worst, it is a clumsy play for ratings.
“Making a Murderer” is on the leading edge of real-reality serial shows. As such, in today’s world, it can attract more viewers by demonizing the police and prosecution and by attacking the “system” that already fills many with angst. It’s the same phenomenon that fills arenas wherever Donald Trump goes. And that’s too bad, because the show’s producers didn’t need to take that approach. Dean Strang, the “Atticus Finch come to life” defense lawyer for Avery, doesn’t need an assist from the filmmakers. He is as articulate in his reform cause as he is in his client’s defense. You’ll never find a more sickening account of the system failing a defendant than Brendan Dassey, Avery’s dull-witted nephew and co-defendant; watching his maladroit counsel pitted my stomach. Yet, without hearing the other side, questions will continue to linger.
In the meantime, Serial Season 2 has already begun, and I’ll be tuning in.
Mario Nicolais, an attorney and legal scholar, is general counsel at Vivage Quality Health Partners.