A study in hopelessness

Making a Murderer is riveting. And depressing as hell

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Netflix’s Making a Murderer is the scariest thing on television in recent memory. It was also a fitting dénouement to a year that’s already see the internet obsess over Serial’s Adnan Syed and The Jinx’s Robert Durst, alongside a never-ending stream of police violence and corruption. It’s a ten-hour white-knuckle ride that ends not in redemption or victory or really anything that might resemble justice, but rather with a profound sense of hopelessness.

For a moment, as change.org racks up hundreds of thousands of signatures for a ‘free Steven’ petition; and Reddit burns through alternate theories, True Detective-style; and Anonymous claims to have uncovered new evidence; it’s possible to imagine that maybe we the people might actually have some impact. Then you remember the institutions involved, and the hopelessness comes rushing back.

What if this happens every time you point a camera or a microphone at a case?

We don’t know if Steven Avery is guilty, or innocent, or if Brendan Dassey is either. We don’t know who killed Teresa Halbach. When a District Attorney stands in a courtroom and explains that ‘reasonable doubt is for innocent people’ without so much as a polite reminder from the judge that this is, in fact, the bedrock of the entire judicial system, it’s hard to take much comfort in any outcomes or verdicts that emerge.

The larger question – the haunting, troubling unknown – is whether the filmmakers, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, have stumbled upon an(other) outlier. Maybe Steven, and Adnan before him, is innocent, and most millionaires who decide to chop up the victims of their self-defense are shown the nearest cell. Perhaps these are the unfortunate slips in an otherwise-functional system.

Or perhaps the system is failing in its fundamentals. What if this happens every time you point a camera or a microphone at a case? The poor and less-educated, with their overworked attorneys, get buried inside a labyrinth of the state’s making, while the rich have bought their right to offend many times over.

So commendable were Dean Strang and Jerry Buting that it seems narratively-unjust to deprive them of their victory

Steven, at least, had good counsel. So commendable were Dean Strang and Jerry Buting that it seems narratively-unjust to deprive them of their victory. They are, in no uncertain terms, the kind of attorneys we all wish populated the legal system. Instead they become lone beacons in a sea of negligence; surrounded by bias and incompetence and assumed-guilt too obvious for even the broadest caricature.

One of the strangest things about watching Making a Murderer is that the events seem recent to us. But Steven and Brendan have already been in jail for 10 years. Perhaps the streets of Wisconsin are safer for it – perhaps two cold-blooded monsters were locked away – but even if that were true, this is not the way we should want it to happen. If they’re not guilty; if there’s reasonable doubt; then a 16-year-old, learning-disabled boy has already lost 10 formative years, and his 53-year-old uncle has now lost 28 in total. And baring some new evidence or scientific test, neither are anywhere close to done.

Most of us never have to think about what a hard line on crime looks like up close. Most people never have to face off against the overwhelming power of the state in any real sense. Most of us can spend our whole lives under the blissful impression that our local courthouse operates like an episode of Law & Order, powered by a pleasant mix of honesty, scepticism, and sweat.

Then, this.

Illusion shattered.

Strang says his profession is a search for the truth, but he’s far too smart to believe that was ever the case here.

Steven never stood a chance.

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