What if it's not about whether he's innocent or guilty?
A documentary has gotten people all over the world riled up.
SPOILERS ABOUND. You've been warned.
In the past few weeks, the Netflix-watching community has been gathered together in a virtual town square — social media — to express strong feelings produced by the documentary "Making a Murderer."
If you haven't seen it, it's the story of how Steven Avery, wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years for sexual assault by a shortcut-taking municipality in Wisconsin and then released when finally exonerated, gets convicted again (for murder). There are all sorts of good questions raised about how he was found guilty the second time.
It's the stuff nightmares are made of.
First, the accused is not necessarily an easy-to-like character. Avery is an uneducated guy from "the wrong side of town" and a family not very well-respected — their family tree of various bad behaviors is probably a couple of typed pages long.
Grudge-wielding authorities targeted Avery immediately as a suspect in the first case, a sexual assault, in 1985. He spent 18 years in prison for it until the Wisconsin Innocence Project intervened and helped present new DNA evidence showing someone else committed the assault.
It was later proven that the police department had ample evidence that should have led them to investigate others, which they didn't pursue. Not only did their dogged insistence on locking up Avery wrongfully deprive him of a huge chunk of his life, but it also resulted in the real perpetrator, Gregory Allen, remaining free to violently rape in the ensuing years.
Avery was released and returned home to try to move on and live his life. That should have been the end of the story, right?
But just as Manitowoc County was facing the possibility of paying millions of dollars to him in restitution, a search for a missing woman named Teresa Halbach seemed to point to Avery.
Her body was later discovered. Evidence seemed (at least on the surface) to damn Avery and his nephew, and they both went to prison for it.
After 18 years of his life wrongfully spent in prison, Avery was right back there.
Did he do it or didn't he? That's the question, right — or is it?
There are fierce debates happening on Facebook and in living rooms around the world. Netflix's documentary presents a lot of troubling aspects to the prosecution's murder case, and the prosecutor, since disgraced for other salacious, character-destroying reasons, argues that the film leaves out crucial evidence the public should be considering. There are lots of split opinions and some who don't know what to think.
I do not understand how the people involved in the prosecution of this case sleep at night. Horrible people. All of them. #MakingAMurderer
— Josh Charles (@MrJoshCharles) January 2, 2016
Video: Teresa Halbach's friends find documentary reaction upsetting https://t.co/eI8wLCvEA8pic.twitter.com/J4xMRMrcAy
— WISN 12 News (@WISN12News) January 8, 2016
But what if the moral obligation of the viewer isn't to try to get to the bottom of whether Steven Avery committed the crime?
Instead, the audience can use its collective power to ask the right questions: Are people all over America getting fair trials based on unbiased investigations?
Or do overworked, under-resourced, and potentially undertrained police departments fit evidence to a favored theory rather than collect all the evidence that could lead them to the truth — truth that could potentially disprove their theories?
Do pressured prosecutors use the media and the law to gain outcomes that favor their own track records and careers, rather than protect the "innocent until proven guilty" core tenet of our judicial system?
The potential for wrong judicial outcomes seems more and more obvious lately.
Sandra Bland, pulled from her car by a Texas officer under falsely reported pretenses, leading to arrest and, subsequently, her suspicious death in jail.
Adnan Syed, a teen boy whose inability to account for his whereabouts and ailing, overwhelmed lawyer caused him to be convicted of his ex-girlfriend's murder — perhaps unjustly, as the radio podcast "Serial" highlighted.
Glenn Ford, who spent 30 years on death row for a crime he didn't commit, causing his prosecutor, in a public show of humility rare for prosecutors, to express extreme regret at how he handled the case and doubts about the way cases are routinely handled.
"My mindset was wrong and blinded me to my purpose of seeking justice, rather than obtaining a conviction of a person who I believed to be guilty. I did not hide evidence, I simply did not seriously consider that sufficient information may have been out there that could have led to a different conclusion. And that omission is on me."
— Marty Shroud, former prosecutor who tried the Glenn Ford case
When I asked the national Innocence Project's Paul Cates whether cases like these are outliers, he gave me unsettling news:
"Since 1989, DNA evidence has helped to exonerate 337 people of crimes for which they didn’t commit," Cates said via email. "The National Registry counts another 1391 [exonerated] by other means. And these represent just a fraction of the wrongful convictions as it is extremely difficult to prove innocence once you’ve been convicted."
That's why the Innocence Network hopes these lightning-rod moments in pop culture will prompt citizens to reflect and act.
If you get addicted to "Serial" and "Making a Murderer" partially because it's so scary how vulnerable any of us could be to a wrongful conviction, then some part of you knows that the justice system in America is in need of deep, expansive overhaul.
These are a few of the many methods for overhaul, according to the Wisconsin Innocence Project's Keith Findley:
"We ... need to change the culture in police departments so they see themselves, and are rewarded accordingly, as neutral investigators into the facts rather than agents of the prosecution whose job it is to build a case against a chosen suspect. Likewise, we need a change in the culture in prosecutors’ offices so that the search for justice is a higher priority than the drive to obtain convictions."
We can rally around our TVs every time a talented filmmaker exposes one of the many cases like this, and then quickly move on. Or we could see it as the wake-up call it is. It disturbs us for a reason.
What happened to Teresa Halbach is unimaginably horrible. What adds so much insult to the injury, though, is that because of poor police work and shady prosecutorial conduct — even if Avery really did commit her murder — there will always be the possibility that her real killer went free.
We can insist on a better justice system, and we should encourage all of our neighbors to do the same.
Here's the trailer for the documentary. You really have to see it to believe it.