In 2003, Stephen Avery, a man from the state of Wisconsin, was released after 18 years in jail for a rape he did not commit, exonerated at last by conclusive DNA evidence. As the press poured over the details of his wrongful conviction, they discovered something that smacked more of vile conspiracy than simple, honest mistake.
In Avery’s case, key members of Manitowoc County’s legal and law enforcement authorities seemed to decide from the very beginning that Stephen, a member of a family that never seemed quite to fit into the community, was guilty of the sexual assault of local woman Penny Beerntsen. Although there was ample evidence to the contrary, as well as strong indication that the crime had in fact been committed by a man with a history of violent sexual crime towards women, in 1985 Stephen Avery would be convicted of the crime and would spend the next 18 years of his life in prison. He would emerge in 2003, exonerated of the crime by the improvements in forensic science, and would wage a crusade against those who put him behind bars before going becoming engaging in a shocking and messy trial relating to the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach in 2005.
This is the story of Netflix’s documentary Making a Murderer, which was released shortly before the new year and has captivated viewers already reeled in by true crime thrillers such as podcast Serial and HBO’s The Jinx. As someone who felt the hook slip right into my cheek upon watching the first episode, and heard the sound of the line reeling in accompanied by the show’s thrilling and percussive score, I’ve been trying to figure out what it is that makes this new whodunit so very compelling. And for me, it has a little something to do with Charlie Hebdo.
As well as tension and shock, the primary instinct I’ve felt coursing through my veins while watching Making of a Murderer is sheer, undiluted rage. As we see the tearful Avery emerge from his long confinement and then discovery that laundry list of issues with the prosecution’s case (disregarded alibis, an untested sex crimes kit, and a manipulated suspect sketch), I could feel my blood boil and seethe. But this was more than merely anger at the trauma and tragedy of Avery’s personal situation, although it was certainly grave enough to warrant such rage. This rage came from a much deeper place.
When we think of the values that underpin our concept of Western liberal democracy, the law is one of the most vital. An impartial and fair court system is the lynchpin on which successful democratic and republican systems are founded, from Ancient Rome to Revolutionary France to the modern United States, where Presidents and paupers are assured a fair trial. But what makes the story of Stephen Avery (and by extension that of, say, Adnan Syed) so horrifying are not the grisly of rapes and stabbings and murders but the deeper corruption and darkness of the perversion of the justice system, one of the integral institutions which maintains the liberal, democratic self-identity around which we rally in times of crisis, such as with Charlie Hebdo.
What makes the likes of Making of a Murderer so effective in undermining our confidence in these societal values and myths is the way that it grips us as a piece of entertainment. In the same way that the jaunty and regular flow of syndicated episodes of Law and Order and showings of A Few Good Men quietly reassure us that our courts are the epicentres of justice and fairness, this documentary series has gripped our attention only to undermine this confidence. It prods at a nagging fear that the values we celebrate and rally around may be hollow and corrupt, not as eternal and immortal as our politicians, public figures and TV sets have led us to believe.
Although we celebrate and rally around these democratic values in time of fear and threat, the most exciting and terrifying media questions their integrity and can leave us enraged, terrified or encouraged toward reform.