Miscarriages of justice don’t come much more outrageous than the case of Steven Avery, a resident of Wisconsin’s rural Manitowoc County, who in 1985, at the age of 22 was arrested, tried, and convicted of raping Penny Ann Beernsten along the shores of Lake Michigan. Though no direct evidence tied him to the crime, Avery was found guilty thanks in large part to a series of unfavorable dynamics: He was uneducated and working-class while Beernsten was well-to-do. A disgruntled relative’s relationship with law enforcement officers furthered the idea that he was an ideal suspect; and a police sketch of Beernsten’s attacker was created based on a prior mug shot of Avery—which, naturally, helped compel Beernsten to finger Avery as her assailant.
With the help of Wisconsin’s Innocence Project, and on the basis of new DNA tests that definitively proved another man’s guilt, Avery was freed after serving 18 years in prison. And yet that amazing story of misconduct, incompetence, and coercion is merely the first-episode prologue to Netflix’s Making a Murderer, which spends its remaining nine hour-long installments digging into the true tragedy that would subsequently befall its subject.
Though providing a superb true-crime bookend to a year that began with HBO’s stunning The Jinx, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos’s decade-in-the-making documentary series is more akin to the Sarah Koenig-hosted podcast Serial, in that it’s concerned with a real-life conviction that raises far more questions than it answers. Or rather, convictions, as Beernsten’s rape is the focus of only Making a Murderer’s first jaw-dropping trial. In that instance, Avery had 16 alibis, none of which were enough to sway a jury that believed Beernsten’s (erroneous) eyewitness account. Not helping matters was the fact that the jury ignored evidence that exonerated Avery, and was also denied access to other key details—such as a local Manitowoc officer receiving a phone call from a nearby district which alleged that another convict in custody (the real rapist, as it turned out) had stated that the Manitowoc sheriff’s department had an innocent man locked up.
Such ineptitude is merely the appetizer for the real meat-and-potatoes indignation elicited by Avery’s saga, which takes a horrible turn after he’s finally released from prison and files a $36 million civil lawsuit against Manitowoc County. That complaint seems primed to cost the area an enormous sum. However, before depositions can be finished, a young Auto Trader photographer named Teresa Halbach visits the Avery family’s 40-acre auto salvage yard on Oct. 31, 2005 to snap pictures of a van, and promptly disappears, with Steven as the last person to have seen her alive. Within days, he’s fingered for her murder by Manitowoc County officers—including the very ones implicated in his civil-lawsuit depositions weeks earlier—who have taken control of Halbach’s murder investigation, even though they have a blatant conflict of interest with regards to Avery, and are supposed to be ceding the inquiry’s lead to neighboring Calumet County officials.
Shortly thereafter, Halbach’s missing SUV is found in the Avery salvage yard (with Avery’s blood in it), the vehicle’s key is located in Avery’s bedroom, and her charred bones are discovered in a fire pit behind Avery’s house. And if that weren’t enough, Avery’s 16-year-old nephew Brendan Dassey, who has an IQ of 70 and reads at a 4th-grade level, tells police he helped Avery rape, stab, shoot, and dismember Halbach. It seems like an open-and-shut case, except that by thoroughly examining this story’s every element, Making a Murderer makes plain that Avery has no motive and is far from the monster he’s depicted as by Calumet County district attorney Ken Kratz. Rather, with a meticulousness that’s exhaustive to the point of exhausting, it contends that Avery—as he argued in his eventual courtroom defense—was the victim of an evidence-planting, witness-tampering frame job perpetrated by a police force, and local government, eager to prevent him from censuring them through wrongful-imprisonment litigation.
Even Avery’s lawyers know that such a conspiracy theory is tough sledding. And it proves to be just that even once Dassey’s confession—which videos show was obtained via detectives’ strong-arm, psychologically manipulative tactics—is ruled inadmissible in Avery’s trial. With an avalanche of names, dates, figures, locations and conflicting statements to lucidly lay out, and with the pudgy, oft-bearded, good-natured Avery pleading his innocence at every turn, Making a Murderer eschews The Jinx’s expressionistic dramatic re-creations. Instead, it recounts its tale with a straightforward documentary aesthetic that’s bolstered by the fact that directors Ricciardi and Demos are present to capture the proceedings (including lawyers’ yeoman’s efforts to develop a theory regarding Avery’s innocence) in real time. The result is that, rather than being predicated on archival footage, the show instead plays like a procedural produced by artists knee-deep in the material they’re covering.
Making a Murderer digs so deeply into the nooks and crannies of Avery’s (and Dassey’s) plight that its comprehensiveness sometimes hinders its dramatic momentum—a shortcoming exacerbated by the series’ staid formal structure. Nonetheless, Ricciardi and Demos’ deep-dive approach to investigative reporting allows them to take an argument that looks, superficially, a bit preposterous—namely, that lawmen would risk so much to pin a murder on a famously exonerated innocent man—and illustrate the many reasons why such a trap is plausible, the many ways it could be perpetrated, and the many examples of how the evidence suggested it took place. At a whopping 10-plus hours, interrogation recordings can be played at length. Testimony can be heard in its entirety. Courtroom arguments, rebuttals, verdicts, and appeals can be shown in full. And the many suspicious links, coincidences, implausible twists, and illogical assumptions made throughout this wide-ranging tale can be presented in orderly fashion.
Moreover, Making a Murderer’s protracted runtime helps impart a profound sense of the sprawling scope and scale of this travesty of justice. By spending so much time charting Avery’s ordeal, and the way it affects his relationship to his parents, his sister (i.e. Dassey’s mother), and his girlfriends, it paints a portrait of not only institutional abuse, negligence, and outright criminality (and of people in authority doing whatever is necessary to maintain their lofty positions), but also of the personal, traumatic toll that can befall the poor, the uneducated, and the ill-prepared if they stand up to those who’ve done them wrong. A wrenching, open-ended story about a system primarily interested in attaining and upholding convictions, Making a Murderer exposes justice as a concept that’s not absolute but malleable, and prone to be denied to anyone who dares speak truth to power.