After nearly 230 years of practice, the American justice system still has some significant shortcomings in the way it treats criminal suspects, particularly youths, the intellectually challenged and the poor.
And nowhere are those flaws more on display in a single place than in the Netflix documentary, “Making a Murderer.”
The focus of the documentary is a 53-year-old Wisconsin junkyard operator named Steven Avery. In the early segments of the 10-part, 10-hour documentary, Avery is convicted of rape and sent to prison, where he serves 18 years before DNA clears him of the crime. That’s not the worst of it. Shortly after his release, and while he’s suing the government for $36 million for wrongful imprisonment, Avery is arrested and charged with the murder of a 25-year-old photographer, Teresa Halbach, whose charred bones are found in a fire pit on Avery’s property. Avery’s alleged accomplice is his 16-year-old cousin, Brendan Dassey, who has an IQ below 70. Dassey admits under intense police interrogation to participating in the crime, then later on withdraws his confession.
The documentary focuses the questionable actions of police during both investigations, more than hints at evidence of a police/prosecutor frame-up, and shines a light on the interrogation techniques police use on Dassey.
Whether one believes Avery and Dassey are actually guilty or not, the documentary should be a wake-up call to the public about how criminal cases are sometimes handled and about the abuses that take place.
This kind of activity is not exclusive to rural Wisconsin. It goes on throughout the nation’s judicial system, and it needs to be addressed.
According to a University of Michigan Law School investigation, 149 people last year were found to have been wrongly convicted and were exonerated of their crimes. Seventeen of the cases were in New York. Each of the individuals spent an average of more than 14 years in prison. Since 1989, the number of people exonerated for crimes they didn’t commit has topped 1,700.
A major culprit in wrongful convictions is false confessions by suspects. Many of these confessions come from children and mentally challenged individuals like Dassey, who don’t understand their rights and who are easily swayed by clever police to admitting to crimes they didn’t commit. Dassey didn’t have a lawyer or a parent in the room when he made his confession, and police are shown clearly influencing his statement through suggestion and intimidation.
The fact that the confession was videotaped is a relatively new and welcome advancement in the fight against wrongful convictions. Juries now can see for themselves whether someone was coerced and judge for themselves the validity of the confession.
The documentary also spotlights sloppy and questionable police investigation techniques. No one can logically explain, for instance, how Halbach’s car keys suddenly appeared in Avery’s room after several previous searches and how a bullet with her DNA on it was found on a garage floor despite the lack of any other blood evidence.
The prosecutor in the case also comes off looking bad, as he ignores these questions and seems intent along with police in zeroing in on Avery, without fully considering the quality of the evidence or other potential suspects. How many prosecutors turn their backs on faulty evidence and questionable investigations in order to secure a conviction?
Both men in the Avery case are poor and not very intelligent, and the case raises questions about how indigent clients are treated by the system.
The only factor not evident in the Avery case that is often pervasive in other miscarriages of justice is that both these suspects are white. The majority of the 149 exonerees last year were minorities.
Some in law enforcement and in the judicial system might take offense at these stories.
But those who are truly committed to ensuring that justice is carried out fairly for all citizens will admit that these problems exist and will double-down their efforts to ensure no one is sent to prison who doesn’t deserve to be there.