If you are a human who uses the Internet, you have likely come across mention of Making a Murderer during the past few days. Obsession with the true crime Netflix docuseries, which delves into the troubling conviction of a Wisconsin man, has ballooned beyond crime blogs and conspiracy-happy Reddit threads. Dissections of the case have cropped up in just about every media outlet under the sun. A soft-spoken defense attorney who is featured in the series has become an unlikely Internet heartthrob. The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach wrote a song inspired by the doc. A well-intentioned, if ill-considered, petition even brought Making a Murderer to the attention of the White House.
The documentary, which unfolds over ten episodes, is the culmination of a decade-long effort by filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi. As they pieced Making a Murderer together from some 700 hours of footage, Demos and Ricciardi hoped their project would spark questions about the process of justice in the United States, but they are somewhat taken aback by the fervency of the public’s response.
“Really, our goal was to start a dialogue about what we viewed as important issues in our criminal justice system,” Demos told Women in the World. “It was always our goal, but I think this far exceeds what we expected, and we’re thrilled that so many people—and so many different people—all over the world are watching, and responding, and having different responses.”
To fully appreciate the roiling, walloping power of Making a Murderer, you really must watch it. But for the uninitiated, here is a primer:
The series follows the remarkable story of a Manitowoc, Wisconsin man named Steven Avery, who served 18 years for a sexual assault that DNA evidence eventually proved he did not commit. Upon his release in 2003, Avery filed a $35 million lawsuit against Manitowoc County, alleging grave misconduct by police. Days after several law enforcement figures were deposed, Avery was arrested for the murder of Teresa Halbach, a twenty-five-year-old photographer who was last seen on Avery’s auto salvage yard. He had been out of prison for only two years.
It was at this point in the story that Demos and Ricciardi travelled from New York to Manitowoc to cover the trial. Both women were pursuing graduate degrees in film, and had seen an article about the latest prosecution of Avery on the front page of the New York Times. They did not know just how gnarled and knotty this case would become, but sensed that it was a journey worth following.
“We thought that he and his story provided such a unique and valuable window through which to look at our American criminal justice system,” Demos said. “It was so clear we could see with 20/20 hindsight that the system had failed [Avery] in the mid 80s. In the intervening 20 years, DNA had advanced, there had been legislative reforms, there had been a lot of talk of, ‘The system is different, wrongful convictions are a thing of the past, these things don’t happen anymore.’ And here he was thrown back into the system. It was really an opportunity to test that theory: has the system progressed?”
Hoping to gain access to the media-wary Averys, Demos and Ricciardi sent the family letters explaining the purpose of their project. They were granted unparalleled access to Avery’s relatives, who let the filmmakers into their homes, laid bare their frustrations and fears. Eager to place his story in nuanced hands, Avery would phone Demos and Ricciardi from prison.
“This is someone who is living with the knowledge of what it was like to do a long prison sentence,” Ricciardi said. “So he had everything on the line and everything to lose, yet he trusted us, believed that we would be responsible enough to tell this story. We will forever be grateful to him for that, and to his family.”
Making a Murderer also features extensive interviews with Avery’s attorneys, Jerry Buting and America’s Sweetheart Dean Strang. During the trial, these two men argued that law enforcement officials, angered and embarrassed by Avery’s lawsuit, had framed Avery through various instances of evidence tampering. Indications of police malfeasance are dropped into Making a Murderer with little adornment, but are nevertheless stunning in their implications of corruption. At the very least, an acute conflict of interest seems to have been at play, with Manitowoc police taking an active role in the conviction of a man who sought to sue them for millions of dollars.
The systemic failings highlighted by Avery’s prosecution come into glaring focus once Making a Murderer introduces Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey. Six weeks into Avery’s trial, Dassey confessed to helping his uncle rape and murder Halbach. Dassey was 16 years old at the time, and learning disabled. Footage of his interrogation indicates that he was highly malleable to police suggestion, and incapable of understanding the severity of his situation (after admitting to the murder, he asks investigators if he will be able to return to class in time to submit a project). Dassey’s defense attorney, Len Kachinsky, not only allowed his client to be questioned without council present, but also hired a detective to solicit an additional confession from the teenager.
For Demos and Ricciardi, this was the most shocking aspect of proceedings rife with unsettling moments. “Brendan’s lawyer arranged for [the investigator] Michael O’Kelly to meet alone with Brendan at the detention center and try to elicit yet another incriminating statement from this kid,” Ricciardi said. “That I just think is completely inexplicable.”
The case as a whole proves to be a convoluted and confounding story, largely driven by men. But several women emerge as key figures. A powerful, sad, and rather exceptional dynamic plays out between Avery’s mother Dolores and his sister Barb, who is also the mother of Brendan Dassey. Dolores is steadfast in her belief that Avery is innocent, while an increasingly exasperated Barb questions whether Avery coerced her son into committing a heinous crime. The relationship between mother and daughter becomes fraught as each tries to advocate for her respective son, serving as a painful reminder that the tragedy of this case may not be limited to the accused.
“When somebody is accused of a crime, and then when God forbid an innocent person goes to prison for something they didn’t do, then it’s not just that person who is going through that,” Demos said. “It’s the whole family, and that certainly includes the mothers.”
The private sorrows of Avery’s relatives bring to light another of the series’ tropes: the vulnerability of those with little money and little education to the vast machinery of the justice system. Barb in particular “was so clearly out of her depth,” Ricciardi noted. Perhaps most memorably, Making a Murderer features a taped phone call between Dassey and Barb during which Dassey tells his mother that authorities have accused him of providing inconsistent statements. He asks her what the word “inconsistent” means. She replies that she does not really know.
And then of course there is Teresa Halbach, whose presence looms large throughout Making a Murderer, but who is—for the most part—silent. Halbach’s family declined to participate in the documentary, and so Demos and Ricciardi sourced her voice from video diaries that were shown during Avery’s sentencing hearing. “Let’s say I died tomorrow,” Halbach, says in one of the clips. “I don’t think I will. I think I have a lot more to do … I just want people I love to know that whenever I die, that I was happy. That I’m happy with what I did with my life.”
It is a haunting bit of footage, but such a small window into Halbach’s stunted life. “We really weren’t in a position to share that much about Teresa Halbach,” Ricciardi said. “We did ultimately have access to Teresa’s video diary, which is shown in the series, and it was really important to us to include her voice … [Prosecutor]Ken Kratz, I think, in his opening statement said to the jury that this is about remembering the humanity of Teresa Halbach. And we agree with that wholeheartedly, but we just weren’t really in a position to have more access to her than we did.”
Any accord between the filmmakers and Kratz seems to end there. Kratz, who declined to be interviewed for Making a Murderer, has been speaking to the media since the documentary’s release, claiming that the documentary intentionally excludes evidence that was damning to Avery. When asked about these allegations, Demos prickled.
“It’s ironic, because we actually looked to Kratz to determine what were the tent poles of the State’s case,” she said. “We searched for what was the strongest pieces of evidence, what the state was saying were the strongest pieces of evidence, and that’s what we put in. Over a six-week trial, we knew going in that we can’t put in every single piece. To choose what we put in, we looked to [the prosecution].”
As interest in and—criticism of—Making a Murderer reaches feverish heights, an army of armchair detectives are gleefully proffering theories as to who committed the crime. But to dwell on the “whodunit” threads of this narrative is to miss the crux of the series. Making a Murderer forces us to untangle questions of Avery’s innocence or guilt from questions about whether or not he should be serving a life sentence. Avery’s culpability, somewhat uncomfortably, becomes almost irrelevant in the face of the possible institutional failings that brought him to trial for a second time.
“Questions of innocence and guilt were never part of our concern in making this,” Demos said. “We were really there to document the process. Justice is a process, and that was the mode of inquiry here. So the question really for us was: Can we rely on this process?”
The answer, Making a Murderer suggests, is truly frightening.