The real reason 'Making a Murderer' disturbs us isn't about sussing out whether he did it.

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.

Images from Netflix's "Making a Murderer," used with permission.

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.

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.

Consider:

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.

Upworthy screenshot.

"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.

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Judy Vaughan has spent most of her life helping other women, first as the director of House of Ruth, a safe haven for homeless families in East Los Angeles, and later as the Project Coordinator for Women for Guatemala, a solidarity organization committed to raising awareness about human rights abuses.

But in 1996, she decided to take things a step further. A house became available in the mid-Wilshire area of Los Angeles and she was offered the opportunity to use it to help other women and children. So, in partnership with a group of 13 people who she knew from her years of activism, she decided to make it a transitional residence program for homeless women and their children. They called the program Alexandria House.

"I had learned from House of Ruth that families who are homeless are often isolated from the surrounding community," Judy says. "So we decided that as part of our mission, we would also be a neighborhood center and offer a number of resources and programs, including an after-school program and ESL classes."

She also decided that, unlike many other shelters in Los Angeles, she would accept mothers with their teenage boys.

"There are very few in Los Angeles [that do] due to what are considered liability issues," Judy explains. "Given the fact that there are (conservatively) 56,000 homeless people and only about 11,000 shelter beds on any one night, agencies can be selective on who they take."

Their Board of Directors had already determined that they should take families that would have difficulties finding a place. Some of these challenges include families with more than two children, immigrant families without legal documents, moms who are pregnant with other small children, families with a member who has a disability [and] families with service dogs.

"Being separated from your son or sons, especially in the early teen years, just adds to the stress that moms who are unhoused are already experiencing," Judy says.

"We were determined to offer women with teenage boys another choice."

Courtesy of Judy Vaughan

Alexandria House also doesn't kick boys out when they turn 18. For example, Judy says they currently have a mom with two daughters (21 and 2) and a son who just turned 18. The family had struggled to find a shelter that would take them all together, and once they found Alexandria House, they worried the boy would be kicked out on his 18th birthday. But, says Judy, "we were not going to ask him to leave because of his age."

Homelessness is a big issue in Los Angeles. "[It] is considered the homeless capital of the United States," Judy says. "The numbers have not changed significantly since 1984 when I was working at the House of Ruth." The COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the problem. According to Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA), over 66,000 people in the greater Los Angeles area were experiencing homelessness in 2020, representing a rise of 12.7% compared with the year before.

Each woman who comes to Alexandria House has her own unique story, but some common reasons for ending up homeless include fleeing from a domestic violence or human trafficking situation, aging out of foster care and having no place to go, being priced out of an apartment, losing a job, or experiencing a family emergency with no 'cushion' to pay the rent.

"Homelessness is not a definition; it is a situation that a person finds themselves in, and in fact, it can happen to almost anyone. There are many practices and policies that make it almost impossible to break out of poverty and move out of homelessness."

And that's why Alexandria House exists: to help them move out of it. How long that takes depends on the woman, but according to Judy, families stay an average of 10 months. During that time, the women meet with support staff to identify needs and goals and put a plan of action in place.

A number of services are provided, including free childcare, programs and mentoring for school-age children, free mental health counseling, financial literacy classes and a savings program. They have also started Step Up Sisterhood LA, an entrepreneurial program to support women's dreams of starting their own businesses. "We serve as a support system for as long as a family would like," Judy says, even after they have moved on.

And so far, the program is a resounding success.

92 percent of the 200 families who stayed at Alexandria House have found financial stability and permanent housing — not becoming homeless again.

Since founding Alexandria House 25 years ago, Judy has never lost sight of her mission to join with others and create a vision of a more just society and community. That is why she is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year — and the donation she receives as a nominee will go to Alexandria House and will help grow the new Start-up Sisterhood LA program.

"Alexandria House is such an important part of my life," says Judy. "It has been amazing to watch the children grow up and the moms recreate their lives for themselves and for their families. I have witnessed resiliency, courage, and heroic acts of generosity."

Researchers at Harvard University have studied the connection between spanking and kids' brain development for the first time, and their findings echo what studies have indicated for years: Spanking isn't good for children.

Comments on this article will no doubt be filled with people who a) say they were spanked and "turned out fine" or b) say that the reason kids are [fill in the blank with some societal ill] these days are because they aren't spanked. However, a growing body of research points to spanking creating more problems than it solves.

"We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behavior problems, and other mental health problems, but many people don't think about spanking as a form of violence," said Katie A. McLaughlin, director of the Stress & Development Lab in the Department of Psychology, and the senior researcher on the study which was published Friday in the journal Child Development. "In this study, we wanted to examine whether there was an impact of spanking at a neurobiological level, in terms of how the brain is developing."

You can read the entire study here, but the gist is that kids' brain activity was measured using an MRI machine as they reacted to photos of actors displaying "fearful" and "neutral" faces. What researchers found was that kids who had been spanked had similar brain neural responses to fearful faces as kids who had been abused.

"There were no regions of the brain where activation to fearful relative to neutral faces differed between children who were abused and children who were spanked," the authors wrote in a statement.

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Images courtesy of John Scully, Walden University, Ingrid Scully
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Since March of 2020, over 29 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to the CDC. Over 540,000 have died in the United States as this unprecedented pandemic has swept the globe. And yet, by the end of 2020, it looked like science was winning: vaccines had been developed.

In celebration of the power of science we spoke to three people: an individual, a medical provider, and a vaccine scientist about how vaccines have impacted them throughout their lives. Here are their answers:

John Scully, 79, resident of Florida

Photo courtesy of John Scully

When John Scully was born, America was in the midst of an epidemic: tens of thousands of children in the United States were falling ill with paralytic poliomyelitis — otherwise known as polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often leaves its victims partially or fully paralyzed.

"As kids, we were all afraid of getting polio," he says, "because if you got polio, you could end up in the dreaded iron lung and we were all terrified of those." Iron lungs were respirators that enclosed most of a person's body; people with severe cases often would end up in these respirators as they fought for their lives.

John remembers going to see matinee showings of cowboy movies on Saturdays and, before the movie, shorts would run. "Usually they showed the news," he says, "but I just remember seeing this one clip warning us about polio and it just showed all these kids in iron lungs." If kids survived the iron lung, they'd often come back to school on crutches, in leg braces, or in wheelchairs.

"We all tried to be really careful in the summer — or, as we called it back then, 'polio season,''" John says. This was because every year around Memorial Day, major outbreaks would begin to emerge and they'd spike sometime around August. People weren't really sure how the disease spread at the time, but many believed it traveled through the water. There was no cure — and every child was susceptible to getting sick with it.

"We couldn't swim in hot weather," he remembers, "and the municipal outdoor pool would close down in August."

Then, in 1954 clinical trials began for Dr. Jonas Salk's vaccine against polio and within a year, his vaccine was announced safe. "I got that vaccine at school," John says. Within two years, U.S. polio cases had dropped 85-95 percent — even before a second vaccine was developed by Dr. Albert Sabin in the 1960s. "I remember how much better things got after the vaccines came out. They changed everything," John says.

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