Last week I noticed that people were raving (mostly on twitter) about the new Netflix series “Making a Murderer.” So over the weekend, I decided to watch it. The story is as gripping as everyone claimed it was. But it stirred an unrest deep inside of me that I can’t shake. As someone else put it, “This is the worst indictment of the criminal justice system in America that I’ve ever seen.”
While I promise not to give away too many spoilers about the story, it takes place far away from hotbed urban areas like Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, etc. where we’ve watched battles about our criminal justice system play out recently. The setting is a small town in eastern Wisconsin on the shores of Lake Michigan. The people who are “othered” by the system aren’t African American – but poor (mostly uneducated) working class white people.
The series begins with the release of Steven Avery from prison after serving 18 years for a crime he did not commit. As proceedings begin for a civil law suit he filed against the local authorities who framed him for that, he is arrested for murder. The filmmakers use local news footage, videotape of interrogations and court proceedings as well as interviews with the people involved to walk you through the process of how the case unfolds. There is one jaw-dropping moment after another, like when the chief prosecutor – during closing arguments – says that “reasonable doubt is for innocent people.”
In the end, there are big questions that remain about who actually committed the murder. But there is no question that what you have witnessed is law enforcement officers who were caught planting evidence and lying in court, the most egregious use of interrogation of a minor that I have ever seen, a prosecutor who plays the media by victimizing a teenage relative of Avery’s to set up a jury that will be conducive to his case, a court-appointed defense attorney who sells out his client to do the bidding of the prosecutor and an entire system that – at every turn – works to protect itself from accountability.
It is that last bit that is the most disturbing and the hardest to shake. I’ve had the pleasure in my career to work with some of the best and brightest people in law enforcement and criminal justice. So I am aware that the entire system is not as corrupt everywhere as the one depicted in this series. But – just as we have often seen with the police killings of unarmed black men – when the system fails to correct itself, then the problem goes from one of being about “bad apples” to an indictment of the whole process. What cannot be tolerated is that all of those things I described above happened…and no one payed any consequences.
The other part of watching this series that is hard to take is that I don’t really know what to do with my anger. So I’m writing about it in hopes that more people will inform themselves by watching it. Honestly…I’m hoping that enough people learn about what these people did so that the officers, prosecutors and others depicted in the series have a hard time showing their faces in public. Until we can come up with a system that holds them accountable, public shame is not a bad alternative.