Making a Murderer: Documentaries working for justice

Dassey’s overturned conviction is third time in 18 months a TV show or podcast altered course of case

First Serial, then The Jinx, and now Making a Murderer: we officially have a new genre on our hands, the long-form, deep-immersion, true-crime documentary that works itself into the courts , perhaps liberating an innocent from jail, or putting the accused there at long last. The ambition here is not to earn Emmys, but to achieve justice.

The decision to overturn Brendan Dassey’s 2007 conviction marks the third time in 18 months that a TV series or a podcast has played a decisive role in a major murder case.

Dassey was convicted at age 17, on the basis of a confession browbeaten out of him by cynical detectives, a key scene in Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos’s Making A Murderer , despite his learning disabilities (IQ 70) and the unpardonable absence of an adult adviser during questioning.

After the broadcast of Sarah Koenig's podcast Serial, Adnan Syed - serving life for the 1999 murder of his 18-year-old ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee - was granted a retrial, following questionable cellphone evidence in the initial case, in June.


With HBO's The Jinx, the real estate heir Robert Durst, long held in suspicion after the 1982 disappearance of his wife and the 2000 murder of his friend Susan Berman - and acquitted for the 2001 murder of a neighbour - was arrested on the eve of the documentary's final episode, in which he was caught muttering in the bathroom: "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."

The innocent-man documentary has a vintage stretching back at least as far as Errol Morris's 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line , which secured the release of its wrongly convicted protagonist, Randall Dale Adams, after 12 years in a Texas jail.

Innocence Project

But this newer variety partakes of two other major influences: The Innocence Project and In Cold Blood. The Innocence Project, originally founded in 1992 after a study found that 70 per cent of wrongful convictions were based on faulty eyewitness testimony, has greatly expanded with the advent of sophisticated DNA testing in the last 20 years.

It has freed 343 people , including 20 who served on death row, and done much to undermine confidence in certain verdicts. Each of the three documentaries relies on a deep sense of legal nuance and a knowledge of procedural crime-solving (and its shortcomings).

What they share with In Cold Blood is Truman Capote's determination to burrow deep into the communities and mindsets of the accused and the deceased, as well as the courts and the police that chew them up.

For Making a Murderer, the film-makers spent almost 10 years travelling back and forth to the tiny Wisconsin town where the story unfolded over three decades. In that time, we see legal reversals and defeats, the waxing and waning of relatives' confidence in their loved ones, and a deep understanding of the ramshackle, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, white-working-class universe of the accused - "Dickensian" is the word most critics used.

The documentary is not just an autopsy of a criminal case, but also a long sojourn in the Other America, usually invisible to film, television and those on the coasts.

There is great virtue in taking one's time as a film-maker - and outletssuch as premium cable and Netflix can go long, free of the confines of TV ads and primetime schedules.

This freedom has also proven an advantage amid attempts to understand an old case anew, through the ESPN documentary OJ: Made in America and the FX mini-series American Crime: The People versus OJ Simpson. Both clocked in at close to 10 enthralling, horrifying hours; both were critical smashes.

The OJ case, as it unfolded, was one of the most confounding, complex touchstones of American history in the last 30 years: a referendum on race, policing, the media and celebrity, far more than a single trial of a terrible case.

As the circus unfolded for two years in Los Angeles, it felt incomprehensible, overwhelming; two decades later, in drama and in documentary, sustained immersion seems the only way to dig out every last nuance of a story of decades-long racial animosity and mistrust, and of the perils of American celebrity and wealth. No one was released from jail this time, but that wasn't the point: together these two meditations on justice amounted to an act of public service.

Perhaps the oldest antecedent to these shows is a British true-crime book by the journalist and broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy, 10 Rillington Place, whose publication in 1961 led both to the superb 1970 film of the same name, and to the posthumous pardoning of 25-year-old Timothy Evans, who had been hanged in 1950 for murders most likely committed by the serial killer John Reginald Christie, himself hanged in 1953.

Nothing could bring Evans back from the dead, but the case and the book had a decisive impact on Britain's decision to abolish the death penalty in 1964. Is it too much to hope that such an achievement might one day be replicated in the United States, this time due to a series, film or podcast?

Guardian News and Media