Making A Murderer

Eric Renderking Fisk | January 2016

Before we get into “Making A Murderer,” I’m going to admit some bias that I have for this mini-series thanks to Dashiell Hammett and his novel “Red Harvest.” I’ve been re-reading this book again before I watched this series on Netflix and it might have tainted my perception of this documentary. “Red Harvest” is social commentary in the guise of a mystery novel and illustrates how small-town politics can be corrupted by pillars of the town using their money and influence to cohere average citizens, labor unions, commerce, and law enforcement. There comes a time after so much corruption that hiding their poor ethics and broken laws become a full-time occupation and the corruptors lose sight of the ‘good’ they were trying to do originally.

What we read about in “Red Harvest” and the town of Personville (alias ‘Poisonville’) that's featured in the novel mirrors the town featured in “Making A Murderer,” so much so that there were many times I felt as if I was The Sam Spade or Nick Charles coming into this small town to do my own investigation. Thanks to “Red Harvest,” I might have received more out of it that was actually there.

My Film Noir and Conspiracy Theory cups runneth over... Thanks to the craftsmanship that went into making this documentary I felt as if I was right there the whole time with them on my own investigation.

With that said…

I dare say that this is the most controversial documentary from the past 10 years that’s divided the country into two camps; one that believes that our government officials did the right thing (or did the wrong things for the right reason) and the other half that believe that the government has done something genuine evil things for no other reason than for its own self-service. Specifically during this specific instance after this series has captured our imaginations; there’s half of us that believe Steven Avery is guilty of killing Teresa Halbach and the other half that doesn’t.

It’s also encouraged a lot of us in the fedora-and-trenchcoat set to go full Marlowe on this and do some of our own investigations, hoping we can get our ticket punched for our private detective credentials. Sadly, not even an army of armature sleuths could ever get to the bottom of this case – the most we could hope for is that with enough pressure from everyone interested that this man gets his day in federal court.

For that reason, I’m not even going to assume that I have the definitive answer to the questions presented in this review after watching this series. The real fun is figuring it out for yourself; If you can call it “fun.”

For those who don’t know Steven Avery; here’s a man with a couple of strikes against him thanks to a lower-than-average IQ, a criminal record with some serious misdemeanors and felonies (such as animal abuse and cruelty, petty burglary…) and a member of an unpopular family in the region. Decades ago he was railroaded and falsely accused of an attempted rape but was later exonerated thanks to improved DNA testing and a jailhouse confession from the actual perpetrator.

To complicate matters, there’s evidence of bias on the part of the Manitowoc County sheriff’s department that ignored evidence that he was innocent for more than a couple of years after the DNA evidence that proved his innocence was discovered. This lack of action on the part of the local sheriff’s department prompted Mr. Avery to file a civil lawsuit against Manitowoc County, Manitowoc County’s former sheriff, Thomas Kocourek, and Manitowoc County’s former district attorney, Denis Vogel.

In the midst of this legal battle, a woman working as a photographer for a local auto-trader paper/catalog – The Aforementioned Teresa Halbach – disappeared and caused a region-wide manhunt looking for the woman. That search included her male roommate, her ex-boyfriend, and Teresa Halbach’s aunt who eventually found her RAV4 SUV on The Avery’s junkyard lot among other abandoned cars and trucks that Steven Avery and his extended family salvaged for a living.

The rest of this series is a roller coaster ride of guilt serving as the low and his innocence serving as the high crescents. One minute, we the viewers are presented with evidence and confessions from another family member that’s he’s guilty, the next we’re presented with evidence that there was evidence tampering and planting by the very members of the Manitowoc County sheriff’s whom he was suing for wrongful incarceration.

There's also an entire episode devoted to the illegal interrogation and coerced confession from his then 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, who suffers from cognitive problems and problems expressing himself in social settings. The young Mr. Dassey was interrogated without his parents or legal counsel for more than 4 hours while two police officers used inappropriate intimidation tactics to force the confession.

There are more than a handful of “What The Funk” moments in this show that come from the hands of specific characters such as one of the members of the Manitowoc County sheriff’s department - Sgt. Andrew Colborn, the man who took the call years earlier about Avery’s innocence in the first crime he was accused of committing. Because of a conflict of interest through Avery's lawsuit against Manitowoc County sheriff’s department, Sgt. Andrew Colborn was excluded from the investigation of Teresa Halbach’s disappearance but appeared to show up on the last day of at least one investigations on The Avery Property and “found” vital evidence that was laying out in plain sight that nobody else could see…

Like a key laying on the floor next to a shelf in the bedroom that investigators searched for more than a week? Nobody else could see this key except for Sgt. Andrew Colborn? Sgt. Colborn who was banned from the crime scene, who showed up on that very crime scene the day after an outside team did their own investigation, and found a vital piece of evidence that nobody else found after 8 days of searching?

Another scene that will leave viewers scratching their head is during the prosecution’s description of how Teresa Halbach was killed. If this woman had her throat cut in Steven Avery’s and eventually shot her multiple times on his mattress, where’s the blood? I’ve seen more than my share of movies and documentaries about murders, more than enough raw footage where people have lost heads and other body parts to know that there’s always a lot of blood that’s shed.

There are a lot of these scenes where we’re all left wondering if Steven Avery was really innocent this time, or if he actually was guilty and the Manitowoc County sheriff’s department planted evidence to ensure a guilty verdict. There’s no other way to look at this and say for sure that he’s not the victim of a partial set up and shoddy work on the part of the local FBI and the regional crime lab. It's up to the viewer to decide if whether or not they did what they did to end his civil lawsuit against the Manitowoc County law enforcement officials who wrongly convicted him decades ago, or were they too zealous in making sure they “got it right this time.”

There isn’t enough time in my life and this rant to document everything that’s wrong with this case, but I will take a moment to note that it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed hating a prosecutor the way I enjoy hating Ken Kratz. For a special treat, google “Ken Kratz sexting scandal" when you're done with this rant and take comfort that this character isn't in your neighborhood trying to convict criminals.

There’s no way anyone can say that from the original group of people involved with this case since the disappearance of Teresa Halbach that there is clearly a solid group of good guys and a solid group of bad guys. There is no solid black and white since Steven Avery isn't innocent of some crimes in the past and Manitowoc County went too far to prove he’s guilty to such an extreme he might be innocent of this crime as he was before back in the late nineteen-eighties.

There are also some people involved with the search for Teresa Halbach such as her aunt… how did she know where to look for her Toyota RAV4? And there was something intangible about her male roommate and former boyfriend in their search for Teresa Halbach. Could it be their demeanor, some expression, or something in their voices? As I said, it’s intangible.

There are only a handful of actual good guys to root for, such as Mr. Avery’s lawyers Dean Strang and Jerome Buting who simply wanted a fair trial for Steven Avery while their belief in The System. Laura Nirider from Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth was out to have Brendan Dassey illegal, forced confession dismissed and perhaps a new trial held for him with his civil rights intact.

It’s not so much that they believe in Steven Avery’s innocence, but they strongly believe that if he and his nephew Brendan Dassey are actually guilty then they should be in prison because of the actual crimes with no question about investigators bias and the tainted or planted evidence.

If you’re going to put someone away, make sure it’s for the right reasons. With Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey in jail under questionable circumstances, it's not unreasonable to wonder if they didn't kill Teresa Halbach, then who did? If Avery and Dassey were set up for the crime, then isn’t it safe to assume that there’s a killer out there still at large?

Writers and directors Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi and their work in this documentary do little to help any of us get too much sleep at night with some profound and thought-provoking questions. Starting with… what's to prevent something like this from happening to me or one of my friends or family members?

If half of our suspicions are true about the investigators who investigated Teresa Halbach’s disappearance, then it’s also safe to ask; what’s to stop local police or sheriff’s departments from setting any of us for a crime we didn’t commit? If there is just one falsely convicted man like Avery or Dassey in prison, how many more are there that we don’t know about?

Is “Making of a Murderer” worthy of your time? Is it really a “flick to hold you over?”

If you’re a fan of hardboiled detectives and you want to figure out what really happened, then this is surely an easy excuse to get into some amateur investigations and get involved in the discussions that have been happening everywhere online, especially on The Electric Speakeasy. It’s a genuine time-killer if you’re only going to watch the series. It's captivating and won't let go until long after you've watched every episode. The subject matter will linger long after you've moved on to something else. Don’t be surprised when your thoughts about the justice system are turned upside down.