I have been deeply troubled by the Netflix docu-series Making a Murderer, and by the viewing public’s obsession with the true crime stories it tells. The widespread response — from outrage to Reddit detective work to elevating defense attorneys to sex symbol status to tasteless humor — brings up many questions about the ethics of true crime as entertainment.
The show’s protagonist is Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who was exonerated in a rape case after serving 18 years in prison, only to be convicted (along with his relative Brendan Dassey) of a gruesome murder that was committed while Avery was suing the county for the wrongful prosecution in the first case.
Making a Murderer lines up an increasingly horrible string of suspect evidence, coerced confessions and twisted investigation practices that have many viewers clamoring for judicial review or even pardons for Avery and Dassey.
Even if believing that the suspects were involved in some aspect of the murder or aftermath, the investigative improprieties are infuriating to watch. The filmmakers do a stellar job of portraying a broken criminal justice system laden with entrenched class bias and insulated power. They also skillfully move a narrative from revulsion towards Avery (whose rap sheet of admitted crimes includes dousing a cat with gasoline and throwing it in a fire, abusing both of his wives, and using a gun and car to threaten his cousin) to advocacy and tremendous sympathy for both men.
We even meet Avery’s new love, Sandy Greenman, who visits him in prison and speaks on his behalf on social media.
The documentary is far less successful in honoring the crime victims involved, and this is highly irresponsible. It’s completely understandable that the victim in the rape case and the family of the murder victim didn’t want to work with documentarians who were obviously imbedded in the Avery family and committed to showing the story from their point-of-view. But the in-depth series could have ensured proper representation of these experiences from a victim’s perspective by interviewing victim advocates or victims’ rights experts–all notably and bafflingly absent. They certainly had time to show us Steven Avery’s father’s box gardens and other less consequential things.
Why is this so? The central thesis put forth by filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, is that the criminal justice system was twice complicit in framing Avery. They are successfully persuasive in showing that and in gaining sympathy for Avery and for Dassey. But doesn’t elaborating on the pain of crime victims in going through a trial that is tainted with investigative errors and corruption add to the horrors of systemic problems? Wouldn’t explaining how a broken criminal justice process that retraumatizes victims every step of the way exacts an unbearable burden on them if the wrong man is convicted?
Think of what Penny Beerntsen, who endured a vicious physical and sexual assault, went through in being manipulated by investigators through the identification, prosecution, incarceration and eventual exoneration of the wrong man. Where is the focus on her losses? Or in the Halbach case, what does sitting through a murder trial where doubt is cast on your son because of a tainted investigative process do to parents grieving over the death and mutilation of their daughter? How is their safety and well-being affected if a trial is a set-up?
These are real costs of a broken criminal justice case, too. It could be argued that injustice hurts those seeking justice the most. But the series don’t focus on victims, and the social media aftermath doesn’t, either.
Victim advocacy suffers in contemporary true crime stories like Serial or Making a Murderer because these entertainment vehicles trade in conversation- and obsession-sparking doubt, a defense attorney’s best friend and the near cousin to victim-blaming.
A focus on victims also points to the squeamish nature of the stories themselves, which would make an obsession with Serial’s arcane details or the dreamy defense attorney memes abhorrent. In short, remembering that these stories only exist because women were raped, beaten, killed and destroyed in fire pits makes them a whole lot less…fun.
Watching it all unfold through the unlikely Christmas present of Making a Murderer, unsettling as this new media obsession is, makes me think that so many of us must be Sandy Greenman wannabees. Remember in Serial how the phone calls between Sarah Koenig and Adnan were crucial to the appeal of the podcast, and how the intimacy was zapped directly into the earbuds of obsessed fans? Maybe that’s essentially what we are doing when we fall for these shows: claiming an inmate romance.
The lure of the prison boyfriend lurks close to the skin but is guarded by bullet-proof glass. Whatever drives women to date incarcerated men (the boost of knowing you are his entire world and hope, the desire for a bad boy in a safe way, the pull to rehabilitate and nurture?) might be at play for audiences, as well. The very phrase “bad boy” is telling. It’s very telling that from the very title sequence we are meant to see Steven Avery as a boy, and we see Brendan and Adnan as boys, as well. We love rough men who are really just harmless boys, and good men who are bad-boy criminal-adjacent (i.e. defense lawyers or those perhaps wrongly accused). We drool over the ego-rich narrative of being instrumental in redeeming them so much we need to avoid thinking of the women who have been victimized, because there is little anyone can do for them now. We would much rather see ourselves as a man, fighting back to free his caged agency, than as a women, robbed of every last hair of hers.
That’s why you don’t see more people gasping on social media about how Teresa Halbach’s body was abused or clamoring for justice for Hai Min Lee. Victims should be central to true crime stories, but there’s no fantasy redemption in loving that, only fear, disgust and sorrow. We barely have been shown who these women were.
But the men involved in these cases, we know them. We know their losses and know what is at stake for their lives, thanks to a warm focus on them accompanied by a mournful string soundtrack. We’ve come to know them intimately.