Watching Making a Murderer doesn’t qualify you to judge if Steven Avery is innocent
Over 125,000 people are convinced he should be pardoned
On November 11, 2005, Wisconsin resident Steven Avery was charged with the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach. Steven’s blood had been found in her car and fragments of Teresa’s teeth and bones were found in a fire pit next to his trailer. Two years later, Steven was found guilty of murder and sentenced to prison for life without parole. Now, in 2016, the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer has armchair detectives across the world convinced Steven is innocent.
Over ten hours, filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos weave together the story of Steven, his past run-ins with the law and ultimately throw doubt on his conviction. The result is a gripping, at times shocking, TV show – the natural successor to fellow true-crime stories Serial and The Jinx.
As with the stories of Adnan Syed and Robert Durst, viewers of Making a Murderer are implicitly invited to question the evidence in front of them and draw their own conclusions. There’s a thrill which comes from trying to piece these stories together, sift through the evidence and come to a conclusion. Whereas jury duty is boring, these shows and podcasts make the evidence entertaining, packaging it so it’s more like a Christmas episode of Sherlock. In the place of a scary, messy murder of a real-life person with grieving relatives and friends, we’re given a puzzle to solve instead.
This puzzle though is always incomplete. There is no way a ten-hour TV show can contain every piece of evidence and story required for an audience to know everything they need to. Within days of Making a Murderer premiering, Vulture were publishing lists of the facts and evidence which went unmentioned. Despite this, hundreds of thousands finished the show, made up their minds and signed a petition calling for Steven’s release, giving someone else’s fate as much consideration as if they were playing Cluedo.
This is the biggest problem with true-crime stories: the tension between what happened and the audience’s desire for a satisfying ending. Serial fans complained when the last episode of the podcast ended with an ellipsis rather than a full stop, as journalist Sarah Koenig explained why she’s still unsure if Adnan is innocent or guilty but that hesitance is to be valued. Sarah understood that in a real-life case, certainty is rare.
By contrast, Making a Murderer lacks any narration from Laura or Moira. Their silence leaves the viewer to make their own mind up but steers them away from remaining open-minded. By the end of the last episode, you feel as if you’re meant to have made a firm decision about Steven’s guilt, when in reality you’ve barely scraped the surface of what might have happened. You haven’t even heard from Steven himself, because the documentary crew weren’t allowed into the prison.
For all the tremendous good which comes from scrutinising convictions and making the public aware of these stories, I’m still not entirely comfortable with the idea of a world of TV jurors deciding someone’s fate and assuming they know better than the local authorities who made the arrest and the actual jurors who were at the trial (interestingly, Making a Murderer has persuaded one juror to actually change their mind).
One day, we might get a definitive answer about what happened to Teresa Halbach. But until then, I’m not comfortable deciding whether Steven Avery is innocent or guilty, and you shouldn’t be either.