Screen Test

Making A Murderer is an electrifying documentary

Images from the Netflix real-life crime series Making A Murderer.
Images from the Netflix real-life crime series Making A Murderer. PHOTO: NETFLIX

Viewers are left to decide if a man imprisoned for 18 years for a crime he did not commit turned into a murderer

Making A Murderer should come with a health warning.

A runaway hit for the streaming service Netflix, this electrifying documentary series about an old Wisconsin murder case has been widely binge-watched and discussed since all 10 episodes were released last month in the United States, where it has now become one of the most buzzed-about shows on television.

But some viewers, myself included, will find it hard to stomach.

Because if you are even slightly convinced by its account of the injustices suffered by accused murderer Steven Avery, you will be infuriated and sickened to the core.

His case is so bizarre that it beggars belief: He was wrongly convicted of sexually assaultinga woman in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, in 1985 - a conviction the local sheriff's department had secured under dubious circumstances.

Protesting against his innocence, he spent 18 years in jail until DNA evidence exonerated him and he was released in 2003.

  • Making A Murderer

  • Netflix

    4/5 stars

With public sympathy on his side, he was gearing up to sue the county and its former sheriff and district attorney for US$36 million, which would likely have bankrupted the town.

As the suit was under way, he was suddenly accused of raping and murdering a local photographer named Teresa Halbach.

Damning evidence turned up after a questionable series of searches conducted by Manitowoc law enforcement, who were supposed to turn the investigation over to a third party because the lawsuit was a conflict of interests, but did not.

Investigators then interrogated Avery's learning-disabled nephew Brendan Dassey and with the help of Dassey's lawyer, who later admitted he "screwed up" by allowing his client to be interviewed alone, coaxed the 16-year-old into confessing that he had helped Avery rape and kill Halbach.

On the defensive, Avery was forced to settle his suit for a mere US$400,000 so he could pay lawyers to defend him on these new charges.

All this is sketched out in the first three episodes, by which point the gnawing knot of dread in your stomach should make it pretty clear where this is heading.

Without wanting to spoil the rest of the series for anyone who has not followed the headlines, the remaining episodes detail theins and outs of the court case and investigation, which are pretty shocking.

The highlights alone would have made for an astonishing two- to three-hour documentary, but it is to the credit of film-makers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos- who moved to Wisconsin to document the trial and have been working on the story for a decade - that they wanted to meticulously detail what they see as a gross miscarriage of justice.

At times, the narrative feelsa bit draggy and repetitive, butin a way, this is a useful reminder of the tediousness involved in litigating such cases - the boredom tax charged by Lady Justice, if you will.

The series also mutates into a sort of anthropology of small-town America and, implicit in its increasingly intimate and heartbreaking portrait of the Avery family, is a commentary about how the poor, uneducated and marginalised are served by the justice system.

There has been extensive debate in the US media over whether the series presents a one-sided account, as former special prosecutor Ken Kratz recently claimed when he asserted that Ricciardi and Demos omitted some evidence against Avery.

Some critics have unfavourably compared the series to the first season of the podcast Serial, noting that Serial narrator Sarah Koenig seemed to allow more room for doubt about the innocence of the accused in that case than Ricciardi and Demos do here.

Yet this is in part a functionof the lack of a narrator in Making A Murderer, which presents most of its facts unadorned, with little embellishment apart from the doleful music that plays over the title sequence.

Thus, viewers are left to decode the ambiguity of the title for themselves. Did Manitowoc County "make" a murderer by framing Avery or did his 18 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit turn the maninto a monster?

If the series blurs the line between narrative film-making and journalism, letting the subjects speak for themselves, as the series often does, certainly tips it closer to the ideals of journalistic objectivity.

One of the most powerful examples of this is the extended footage of Dassey's interrogation, which makes for uncomfortable, but absolutely gripping viewing.

It is also telling that for all the damning suggestions made about official misconduct, no one has so far been able to claim there were factual inaccuracies.

Of course, one of the reasons the series has become such a phenomenon is that it flatters viewers into thinking they can examine the case as presented and decide the truth for themselves.

Hence the numerous theories that have surfaced in the media or on forums such as Reddit, with many fans suggesting alternative culprits and coming up with their own arguments about the case.

This level of viewer engagement, which Serial also enjoyed, is a powerful thing - but it has a sting in the tail, which is evidenced by the fact that sections of the media are now gunning for Avery, whose legal fight is not over.

If Making A Murderer teaches viewers anything, it is that absolute certainty about someone's guilt or innocence - which many felt with Avery's 1985 conviction -is a dangerous thing and that perhaps the only thing we are equipped to adjudicate is whether there has been due process anda fair trial.

Ironically, the series has prompted such feelings of outrage that this message may be lost.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2016, with the headline 'Making of a monster?'. Print Edition | Subscribe