Netflix’s Baffling Defense of a Woman Who Dismembered Her Rich Husband
The Netflix docuseries ‘Elize Matsunaga: Once Upon a Crime’ re-examines the story a woman who cut up and disposed of her rich hubby—and was found to have acted in self-defense.
There’s considerable talk toward the end of Elize Matsunaga: Once Upon a Crime about how things would have been different if its central murderer/victim dynamic had been reversed. Such speculation is largely pointless, but it is difficult to imagine a docuseries showing less respectful interest in its victim—and more sympathy for its killer—than Eliza Capai’s four-part Netflix affair, which by its conclusion transparently reveals that it’s on the side of Elize, this despite the fact that all available evidence points to the woman’s guilt.
Elize Matsunaga: Once Upon a Crime (streaming now) concerns the 2012 tragedy involving São Paulo couple Elize and her husband Marcos, an Asian businessman and wealthy heir to the Yoki food company that was founded by his grandfather. On the eve of Yoki’s sale to General Mills, which would have netted Marcos untold additional riches, he vanished, with Elize reporting his disappearance to authorities. As it turned out, though, Elize knew exactly where Marcos was since, as she’d soon confess to lead investigator Mauro Dias (in footage presented here), she shot him dead in their apartment, after which she chopped him up, put his body parts in blue garbage bags, and dumped his remains in the forest along a remote road.
Whether Elize did what she said she’d done was never in doubt. What was up for debate, however, was if Elize had committed premeditated homicide, or if—as she asserted—it was an act of self-defense against a verbally and psychologically abusive husband. Through interviews with relatives, lawyers, investigators, and journalists, as well as via TV news reports and police videos of Elize reenacting the crime in her apartment, Elize Matsunaga: Once Upon a Crime paints an in-depth picture of the couple’s life together. It also features an extended 2019 chat with Elize during the first of her legally permitted (and unsupervised) furloughs from prison, which allows her to restate her version of events in comprehensive fashion—and, thus, to make the case that she was the real victim of this sordid saga.
After playing it relatively straight and even-handed for its first three installments, the final chapter of Elize Matsunaga: Once Upon a Crime goes overboard making plain its allegiance to Elize, whose sob story involves not only accusations that Marcos said nasty things to her while also cheating on her, but that as a child, she was sexually assaulted by her stepfather. Director Capai recreates that long-ago scene through Elize-POV shots, as well as embellishing her pained commentary with evocative images of the wind blowing through window curtains—gestures that are meant to endear us to Elize’s terrible plight and, in doing so, to bolster her justifications for slaying her spouse. According to Elize (and the docuseries), she feared for her life and, having already experienced abuse at the hands of a callous man, simply took measures to protect herself. As for the dismemberment issue? She was a trained nurse and skilled hunter and marksman (courtesy of Marcos’ training), and therefore she was just following her natural instincts.
This might be convincing if the underlying facts of Elize’s case didn’t so starkly contradict her narrative. Contrary to her account of shooting Marcos from a distance while standing in front of him, forensics confirmed that Marcos was actually gunned down from a high rear angle at close range, execution-style. Furthermore, there was zero proof that Marcos had ever been, or on the night of his death was, cruel and abusive; Elize’s claims were just one-sided (and self-serving) conjecture that ran contrary to everyone else’s portrayal of him (including the friends featured in the series). Her explanation for dismembering and disposing of Marcos was suspiciously vague. And most damning of all, Elize had two significant motives: vengeance for Marcos’ cheating, and a desire to inherit his wealth, which would allow her to continue living the lavish “princess” fantasy she’d enjoyed with him.
Elize admits to being jealous of Marcos, and it’s easy to see why she would be: Elize had been Marcos’ first mistress (when he was married, with a daughter), and now that he was married and had a daughter with her, he was seeing another escort behind her back, thus indicating that he was continuing a cyclical pattern of behavior. Elize’s natural terror about being replaced would have been reason enough to kill Marcos, and certainly sounds more plausible than her own story. Nonetheless, as Elize Matsunaga: Once Upon a Crime recounts, the jury saw things differently, and only found her guilty of acting in self-defense. When it came time for sentencing, however, the judge wasn’t ready to let Elize walk free, instead giving her 19 years in prison, albeit with the opportunity to have regular unsupervised furloughs should she demonstrate good behavior behind bars.
As innumerable true-crime efforts have illustrated, miscarriages of justice are common, and despite Elize Matsunaga: Once Upon a Crime’s increasingly slanted depiction of these events, it’s easy to see this as another. Director Capai wades into the tabloidy stew of her subject matter—Elize and Marcos owned a veritable arsenal of weapons; loved trophy hunting; owned a pet snake; and were both wrapped up in the world of prostitution—but those sensationalistic elements do little to dispel the bedrock details of this incident. To counter the persuasive forensics of the case, Elize had only her unsubstantiated word, and the fact that any jury bought that—while knowing that she had chopped her husband up over the course of hours, and then thrown him away like trash (which she claimed was done in a “panic”)—is to buy into a familiar legal-defense ploy of vilifying the dead, who can’t speak for themselves.
Elize Matsunaga: Once Upon a Crime does the same, spending far more time commiserating with Elize (as she weeps about her ordeal, and visits her loving aunt and grandmother) than focusing on Marcos. It casts Elize as a distraught but fundamentally blameless woman who was treated horribly by a sexist man (and media, and culture), all while allowing her—an admitted murderer—to largely define her victim for the world.