The Necessary Bias Of Making A Murderer

This is part of our new Saturday Supplement feature, in which RPS’ writers run some bonus, non-gaming articles on weekends. Apart from this week, when it happened on Monday instead due to Adam ending up in hospital.

Contains spoilers for the entire series, though not in detail, and nothing that wasn’t made public by news reports some years ago.

One of the hardest things about Making A Murderer – and there are a great many hard things about it – is the realisation upon finishing it that you mean nothing to it, or to the people in it. That it is not in any way your story.

The Netflix 10-part documentary series focusing on the controversial twin convictions of Wisconsin scrapyard worker Steve Avery feels like such an intensely personal experience to watch – this marathon of faith and doubt, horror and hope. It’s the drama of the journey, not the discomfort of the denouement that makes it, even though almost all discussion around the series is focused on that denouement.

To find coverage of and conversation about it everywhere once I’d finished was a shock, though not at all an unexpected one – clearly you’re not going to find hidden gems on the front page of Netflix. I had much the same experience with Serial – it was my private headphone world of strangers’ agonies, and to suddenly be sharing it with everyone else and their pet theories robbed me of that sense of involvement, stamped all over my own analysis of what might have really happened. A strange form of entitlement, that I should want to make someone else’s tragedy feel like my own, and hate that it is taken from me by breathless headlines and all-knowing Tweets.

On the other hand, I’m typing ‘Steve Avery’ into Google every day and finding out new things – actual records of past evidence or evidence not shown in the series – which destabilise my own beliefs about Avery’s innocence or guilt. Not just theories, but facts. And that means the show keeps on going, keeps on providing, in a way very few others have. Post-Serial analysis seemed so much more mired in gut theories, and particularly affected by the evident sympathy of its narrator, so upon realising that there was little else left to discover, I lost interest fast.

Making A Murderer has no blatant narrator, but there is a hidden one – selective editing, shaping the tale and shaping sympathies. As much as I am relatively convinced there was legal wrongdoing regardless of whether or not Avery was guilty, I find it deeply disingenuous of the film-makers to have claimed they made as balanced a series as possible when accused of bias by charmless prosecutor Ken Kratz.

I understand that Kratz, along with almost everyone else who maintained Avery’s guilt, refused to contribute, thus inevitably meaning more footage of those on who his side was available to the cameras, but there’s no escaping that long shots of sad mothers or kind-eyed, sighing defence attorneys would lead most viewers to draw sympathetic conclusions. If a cop accused of evidence-tampering wouldn’t talk them, surely at least one friend, family member or former colleague would be prepared to stand up for them on camera? Where was the show’s human sympathy for those who seemed to truly believe Avery was a monster?

It is a biased show. But perhaps it needed to be. Because there are two separate tales in it – one is the question of whether or not Steve Avery murdered a woman not long after being released from an 18 year sentence for a sexual assault that later DNA testing proved he did not commit. It’s an incredible, delicious, chilling concept: not just did he do it, but was an innocent man framed twice? And if he was, was it because, as slowly-emerging post-show reports are lending some credence to, the police had very strong reasons to believe Avery was a danger to society? Was crime-scene tampering, if indeed it did happen, acceptable if it meant getting a monster off the streets? That’s the question Making A Murderer doesn’t actually pose, both because it cannot itself accuse the police of illegal action (it’s reliant instead of what anyone else says on screen), and because it’s very clear that its sympathies lie with Avery and his similarly-accused young cousin Brendan.

Brendan isn’t the second tale I mean, although should be thought about separately to Avery. (I am more doubtful of his guilt than I am about Avery’s, and as a parent seeing someone with childlike behaviour being coaxed into saying certain things while clearly unaware of what doing so would result in was profoundly chilling. My partner felt she could not continue watching the series after the episode in which we see the circumstances of Brendan’s confession, and while I was disappointed to watch the rest alone, I understood. I could too easily picture our daughter in that little room, saying whatever she was told to because a big man kept claiming everything would be OK if she did). The second tale is about the justice system, and that is why the show perhaps needs to be biased.

We need to have sympathy for Avery if we are to be able to see the justice as flawed, and its power as terrifying. If we knew out the gates that Avery was indeed a violent sex criminal, we’d be rooting for the state to take him down by almost any means necessary. We’ve often had that frustration in TV shows such as the Wire – when the police aren’t able to get someone they know for sure is a dangerous criminal convicted, we’re praying that one of them takes the law into their own hands to make things right. Making A Murderer has to get past the inherent trust of justice that many of us broadly have in order for us to see how it can be perverted, and to achieve that it has to put us on the accused’s side.

It’s biased. It’s extremely biased. It doesn’t tell us how much contact Avery had with his alleged victim even on the very day she went missing, it doesn’t tell us about the history of violence and sexual assault in his family, and it handwaves away even the declared fact that he once burned a cat alive. It doesn’t, however, come out and say that he wasn’t behind the murder, and thus, whatever ultimately happens, it can stay it stopped short of proclaiming a monster’s innocence. But in order that we can see the lengths police will go to to get their man – planting evidence, stealing blood, refusing to look into someone else’s confession, letting another known criminal go free so they can focus on Avery, coercing someone with learning difficulties into saying what they wanted to hear, then lying about it all – perhaps Making A Murderer had to be biased.

Avery may well be guilty. There are an awful lot of coincidences to be explained away if he isn’t. But what if he isn’t? More terrifyingly, what if this happened to you or me? What hope would we have when the system is like that? When law cheats and colludes, when entire juries wind up lead by an aggressive minority regardless of individuals’ feelings, when lawyers set up their own clients for a fall, when the accused’s options to fight back run out once the money does? What could we do?

I ejected out the other end of Making A Murderer chilled, then dismayed to discover that it was already everyone’s talking point. But, for once, I don’t think this one’s getting out of my head any time soon.

24 Comments

  1. iucounu says:

    This is a really great piece that encapsulates exactly what I felt about this excellent series.

    (I would just add that for all that Ken Kratz is talked about as the villain of the piece, the guy who comes out worst, for me at least, is Len Kachinski, the court-appointed lawyer for Brendan Dassey.)

    • Unclepauly says:

      In America we call the court appointed lawyers “public pretenders” because in nearly 90% of the cases these “lawyers” are actually prosecutors in training. They are getting a sort of behind enemy lines look at the whole process before they take up their future roles. They are definitely not there for the person in questions best interest even though they give off that impression. If you can’t afford a lawyer you are completely at the courts mercy.

      • iucounu says:

        SPOILER: It did exactly seem as if he felt his job was to quietly shuffle Dassey into jail with minimum fuss. I was watching the episode in which his investigator questions the kid and bullies him into signing another confession (with sketches!) I was sitting there mansplaining to my wife that I was sure the point of the exercise was to demonstrate how easily he could be manipulated into saying things. I couldn’t believe it when the investigator – the defence’s investigator! – then immediately rang up the detectives and handed everything over.

      • Diatribe says:

        You pulled numbers out of your ass and are woefully uninformed about the facts of life. Don’t say anything if you’re so ignorant on a topic that your comment will only make people stupider.

        You non-Americans should be aware that 90% of people named Unclepauly have no idea what they are talking about.

  2. Muzman says:

    The thing about leaving out those details every one is talking about is that they don’t really point to Avery’s guilt very successfully at all. A crime scene is still missing in the whole business. In that way a production just gives its enemies ammunition when they can drag these things out. It becomes about the perceived bias and selective reporting rather than whether or not these excluded details amount to anything relevant.

    • waltC says:

      All the crime shows on television are the same: you are manipulated throughout and as you are your opinions change and your sentiments shift-back and forth. My wife watches this type of show, I don’t much care for them–because the viewer is not in the courtroom and sitting on the jury and the viewer gets no opportunity to come face-to-face with the accused–to study his body language, demeanor, and judge for himself.

      All of these kinds of shows leave out a lot of information–information that the jury was given, for instance. There’s no way that a trial that takes weeks and covers a lot of evidence can be condensed into a single day’s worth of programming (if you watched all the episodes back to back.) So much more if left out than is shown–and what we are left with at the end is the opinion of the show’s producer, which may or may not jive with the jury’s conclusion. It’s very possible to watch such a show and at the end, say, “I sure cannot understand that jury!” That’s why I don’t watch these things–if I had been on that jury I would no doubt understand their decision perfectly, despite the sympathies of the producer/director–whichever way they may lean.

      • Muzman says:

        All media leaves out details that might make you think differently about some story or event. Heck you might think differently about something if the same information was simply put forward in a different order. Bias, as such, is basically fundamental to communication between humans.
        So all that is true, yes.

        However, there’s been a lot of that sort of talk around these sorts of stories, that if you/I was on the jury we probably would have come to the same conclusion. Some of these big cases it is hard to say, but I have definitely seen cases on law where if I were on the jury I absolutely would not have gone the same way as the jury who heard the case. They had too much faith in confessions or eye witnesses or some handy snitch. Nor would I necessarily back down to the group when holding a doubting and minority opinion, as most apparently do.

        But I suspect voir dire would have weeded out my pernickety ass long before I was even on the long list.

  3. dirtrobot says:

    It all boils down to the state officials who would have ended up being personally liable, due to the insurance companies refusing to cover the awards of the suit Avery had hit them with. But either way the real tragedy is the nephew, I can’t think of a more awful human being than one who would coerce an intellectually incompetent teen into betraying themselves into jail for life. As awful as Len was, Kratz and his cohorts set the circumstances up to their favour in that context.

  4. Antistar says:

    This is the first I’ve heard of this case, or this show, so it’s very possible that I’m missing something here, but does this relate to PC gaming in some way? The article makes no mention of anything relating to PC gaming as far as I can see, so I’m a little confused.

    If not – and I don’t mean to be rude, I’m just curious – why is it here on RPS?

    • Jac says:

      Try reading the first sentence of the article as that explains what it is doing on RPS.

      • Antistar says:

        That first explanatory paragraph was not there when I made my comment. Seems like it was edited in after I posted – without noting that that’s what was happening, leaving me looking like a bit of an idiot. Cheers guys! ;P

        In any case; that explains it, I guess. I was wondering why the article wasn’t showing up on the main page; it’s because it’s a weird kind of sub-article thing. I’d come across it via a side-bar link that went directly to this sub-article itself.

    • Immobile Piper says:

      RPS has a long history of doing the occasional non-PC gaming related bit. Whether it’s the offhand console remark, boardgames or indeed nothing at all to do with games.

  5. uh20 says:

    Terrible example: Valve anti-cheat in real life.

  6. Skeletor68 says:

    I just couldn’t get over the press conferences from the prosecution.

  7. C0llic says:

    It’s a terrifying series, and I ended up binge watching it obsessively. It didn’t feel unlike the grim fascination we all have with an ugly car accident, so I can’t say truthfully that I enjoyed it, but I am glad I stuck with it.

    Brendan’s coaxed confession was the most disturbing part of the whole thing for me by far. It’s really hard to say whether Avery did it or not, but there just seems to be so much questionable stuff going on, as was pointed out it’s a miscarriage of the justice system regardless.

    The take-away thing for me, and what made the thing so chilling, is that we’ll never know because the police seemed to pursue the case for themselves, not for the victim.

  8. sosolidshoe says:

    “We need to have sympathy for Avery if we are to be able to see the justice as flawed, and its power as terrifying. If we knew out the gates that Avery was indeed a violent sex criminal, we’d be rooting for the state to take him down by almost any means necessary. We’ve often had that frustration in TV shows such as the Wire – when the police aren’t able to get someone they know for sure is a dangerous criminal convicted, we’re praying that one of them takes the law into their own hands to make things right. Making A Murderer has to get past the inherent trust of justice that many of us broadly have in order for us to see how it can be perverted, and to achieve that it has to put us on the accused’s side.”

    Spoken like someone who’s never had RL interactions with the justice system. Personally those moments in cop shows where the “hero” officer inevitably takes the law into their own hands are usually the ones that make me stop watching permanently, because I’ve seen the reality of those kinds of officers and the people they target are almost never actually guilty, or indeed “monsters”, they’re just folk, people some self-conceited thug have taken a dislike to, or easy targets for lazy scum who want an quick & simple collar.

    Maybe once you’ve seen some fat snivelling pig harassing an autistic guy for hours on end by dragging them in and out of a cell all night every time they fall asleep while claiming to be waiting for the duty solicitor they never bothered to call, then showing up periodically at the man’s home after he was released without charge(being entirely innocent) just to let him know “one day you’ll slip up and I’ll have you, freak”, with all his despicable “hero” colleagues closing ranks to protect him, to the point his victim attempted suicide, maybe then you’d be less inclined to bay for the blood of the “guilty”. In fact, try volunteering at any mental health charity that works directly with sufferers, if you have any kind of empathy or conscious at all you’ll quickly lose any respect you have for the police.

    • TheAngriestHobo says:

      You paint a very vivid picture with very few facts.

    • DOHrps2015 says:

      sosolidshoe – I would be interested in what crimes you’ve committed. Not just what you’ve been arrested and convicted for, but what illegal things have you done? You’ve got the opinions of a caught crook, and though you clearly don’t have a fact to piss in you bothered to post your bilious crap here, so fill everyone in – what sort of criminal activity have you committed?

  9. Philopoemen says:

    Making a Murderer needs to be called something other than a documentary, not because it isn’t one, but because the general populace seems to equate it to it being impartial.

    I’ve been a cop long enough to have seen a lot of dodgy stuff go on, been to plenty of murders (and for that matter sudden deaths) where things were a little iffy. Cops do get tunnel vision and there is pressure to close the case asap to move onto the next. Its not an exact science, and sometimes things don;t get done that should, or evidence does get lost (that said, I work for a force of 6000+ sworn officers, plus all the unsworn staff, so we likely have a bit more property to store than the Manitowoc County sheriff)

    I’m not going to espouse my own opinions on the subject, but I disagree with the “necessary bias” phrase.

    • magogjack says:

      If anything it should have been an outright condemnation of the police involved.

      • Philopoemen says:

        As I said, not going to say my piece about it, but the creators of the doco have an agenda they’re pushing – which is fine, thats what they’re paid to do.

        But people need to understand that the bias is there, and as i said, I don’t think its necessary. The show would have been perfectly served show both sides of the coin and let the evidence, such as it is, sway the viewer.

        My biggest gripe with show is how they portray the defence lawyers are some sort of social crusaders, sticking up for the innocent. Watch a defence counsel cross-examine a rape victim – they’re in it to win, and don’t care who they burn to do it.

        • magogjack says:

          True enough. I will correct, it should have been an out right condemnation of everyone.

          Snark aside I get what you are saying, but I think its hard for you to really understand how a cop on a bad day can ruin someones life(or if you can, then what it is like to be on that end of things), and they often have no way to defend themselves unless they are rich.

  10. Chaz says:

    I haven’t seen this but I thought Werner Herzog’s “On Death Row” documentary series was very good. Is this anything like the same?