The film-makers behind the hit Netflix series Making A Murderer have called the 10-part true-crime documentary a "howdunnit", rather than a "whodunnit". Their project highlights a case that exposes the dysfunctional workings of the US criminal justice system.
The docu-series, filmed over a decade, has still fed the whodunnit appetites of home detectives hungry for more after the first Serial podcast series. Making A Murderer has gripped a binge-watching public in the US and beyond since its release a month ago.
This investigative tale tells – warning: spoilers ahead – the story of Steven Avery, a 53-year-old Wisconsin man convicted of the 2005 murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc County on the shores of Lake Michigan in the American midwest.
Documentary-makers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos depict how Avery was charged with the crime while he was suing the county's police for $36 million over his wrongful conviction in a violent 1985 rape of a woman for which he served 18 years in prison.
He was exonerated for that crime by DNA evidence in 2003, one of 337 people who have been released on such scientific evidence following their convictions, according to the Innocence Project.
On the day she went missing, Halbach had travelled to the Avery family’s scrap yard to photograph a car. Her vehicle was found on the property a few days later and drops of Avery’s blood were discovered in her car and her charred remains in a fire-pit next to Avery’s home.
Avery’s lawyers argued unsuccessfully at trial that their client was set up by Manitowoc County’s sheriff department and that evidence was planted to incriminate him. He still protests his innocence.
Like Serial, Making A Murderer makes great play of dramatic cliffhangers as they follow the case and the investigation by the defence lawyers. Ricciardi and Demos drip-feed evidentiary bombshells.
The story becomes about the vagaries of the US criminal justice system and whether prosecutorial bias outweighed fairness and due process.
Brendan Dassey, Avery's nephew, was also convicted for Halbach's murder. One of the more shocking aspects of the series are the questions raised about how a "learning-disabled 16-year-old", as one of Avery's attorneys described him, wasn't given the legal assistance and defensive support he should have been entitled to.
It is clear from his interrogations that this mentally vulnerable teenager did not understand the implications of what he was admitting to and is led to tell police investigators what they want to hear.
Dassey later recanted his 2006 confession. The behaviour of his attorney, Len Kachinsky, and the lawyer's investigator, Michael O'Kelly, in helping the prosecution's case is especially disturbing.
In addition to not ever wanting to find yourself in trouble with the law in Manitowoc County, you are left after 10 gut-wrenching hours of television with the impression that the burden of proving guilt in an American criminal court is just not that onerous. One prosecutor accused the documentary-makers of leaving out key damning evidence.
Both Ricciardi and Demos have said they believe that Avery’s guilt was not proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and, on the basis of what they present, it is hard to disagree with them.
Sense of responsibility
“We feel like there are no winners here,” Ricciardi said in an interview this week. She hoped it would engage Americans to feel a sense of responsibility and “to understand their own agency”.
“If we see someone in a perp walk on television, we can check ourselves and try to reserve judgment about that person,” she said.
At a moment of angry finger-pointing and swift conclusion-jumping in American public life, her remarks are timely.
Almost 130,000 people had signed a White House petition this week asking President Barack Obama to pardon Avery and Dassey, passing the 100,000-mark that triggered a response. The White House said it didn't have the authority as the men were prosecuted in a state court.
In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama spoke of broader changes: his hope that he and the Republican Congress could agree on reforming the criminal justice system during his final year in office. He wants to end the culture of mass incarceration and cut mandatory sentences for non-violent offenders.
For a country that is home to 5 per cent of the world’s population but 25 per cent of the prisoners on the planet – with annual incarceration costs of $80 billion – this is long overdue.