Netflix’s Making a Murderer became something of a national obsession over the Christmas holiday, which is probably a good thing, people getting a good look at how the criminal justice system actually works and whatnot. Interest in the case has fueled follow-up stories, which are everywhere now, but unfortunately it’s a bit of an SEO-fueled sh*t storm.
The show has also created the natural dichotomy of people wanting to help two guys (Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey) who seem to have been railroaded by the system and now have no legal recourse other than publicity on the one hand, and on the other, people not wanting to assume we know everything about a case just because we saw a documentary. (To be fair, it was a really long documentary.) I’ll try to parse some of the most recent updates for you.
First, the petition(s).
Petitions defending Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey have garnered 150,000 signatures. A WhiteHouse.gov petition calling for President Obama to pardon Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey has almost 20,000 signatures as of this writing, while a Change.org petition calling for basically the same has another 185,000.
So, do either of these petitions actually have a chance of changing anything? Chances seem slim so far. Most of the Change.org petitions that have actually had an effect seem to involve embarrassing a corporation into doing something differently or changing a formula. Meanwhile, WhiteHouse.gov petition “success stories” seem to involve mostly lip service or ceremonial gestures. But presidential pardons aren’t unheard of. Clinton pardoned 459 people, George W. Bush 200, and Obama has so far pardoned 61. So receiving a presidential pardon is certainly a possibility, but it seems much more likely if you’re a blood relative or somehow connected to a president in a famous scandal, none of which applies to Steven Avery or Brendan Dassey.
“Important Evidence Making A Murderer Left Out”
This has been a popular story ever since special prosecutor Ken Kratz spoke to People last week, saying the documentary “left out key pieces of evidence.”
It’s hard to take anything that soft-talking creepshow says at face value, but a Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reporter made a similar list of omitted evidence using actual trial records and news reports. While some of the bullet points were meaningless (one was that Avery had porn in his house, proving conclusively that he is a human male), others were more damning. The list includes:
-Leg irons found in Avery’s house.
-The car key supposedly had Avery’s sweat on it.
-Dassey had bleach stains on his pants, allegedly from helping Avery clean his garage.
-A newspaper report cited a court filing that allegedly included an affidavit from a woman saying Avery had raped her.
-Avery called Teresa Halbach three times, twice using *67 to hide his identity. This was also alleged by Kratz, but it comes from two cellular company workers, Bobbi Dohrwardt and Laura Schadrie, who testified at the trial.
-Avery’s rifle was a ballistic match with the bullet with Halbach’s DNA on it. It seems like a spent bullet would’ve been easy to find somewhere on Avery’s property, and the defense argued other planted evidence, but refuting this would require us believing that the conspiracy against Avery was that much more thorough.
Moira Demos and Barbara Ricciardi responded to Kratz in TheWrap, refusing to refute specific pieces of evidence (somewhat disappointingly), but arguing that their movie was an attempt to balance both cases, not a work of advocacy on behalf of Avery and Dassey.
Moira Demos: I guess I would ask Kratz what he would trade it for. We tried to choose what we thought was Kratz’s strongest evidence pointing toward Steven’s guilt, the things he talked about at his press conferences, the things that were really damning toward Steven. That’s what we put in. The things I’ve heard listed as things we’ve left out seem much less convincing of guilt than Teresa’s DNA on a bullet or her remains in his backyard.
The filmmakers teased a possible sequel for the show, saying they’re still gathering material as new developments take place.
Finally, Demos and Ricciardi offered some more insight to how the show came about in a recent Daily Beast piece:
After reading a story in The New York Times about Avery’s plight, filmmaking (and romantic) partners Demos and Ricciardi borrowed a camera and hit the road to Manitowoc County in a rental, set on staying for a week to document Avery’s trial. As the case wore on they moved in to temporary digs in town, scoring key access to Avery’s beleaguered family by writing a letter to Avery, who gave his blessing from behind bars. The trial lasted six weeks and took an unexpected turn when Calumet County District Attorney Ken Kratz held a press conference that threw a sensational wrench into the case, and into Demos and Ricciardi’s plans, just as they were packing up to head home.
One mystery they tried to clear up was why the defense didn’t try harder to discredit the prosecution’s test for EDTA. EDTA is an additive used to preserve blood samples, and its presence would indicate blood that had been planted. The prosecution eventually used a test for EDTA to refute the defense’s argument that blood had been planted, though the test, as argued by expert witnesses called by the defense, was much more useful for proving that EDTA was presence, and not very reliable for ruling it out, the way the prosecution used it.
If Avery’s team had as many resources available to them as the state had at their disposal, Demos says, they might have been able to put the FBI’s test under more scrutiny. Instead, “the only thing the defense was in a position to do was analyze the data coming out of the FBI labs,” she said. “They didn’t have the funds. The FBI is a huge resource that the state was given—it would have cost tens of thousands of dollars.”
“In one interview that didn’t end up in the series, [Avery defense attorney] Jerry [Buting] talks about how they would have basically had to go to a university lab, ask them to do a research project to find out about degradation in EDTA, all of these things,” Demos explained. “So really, science was not at the place where it could be used to test this—and yet it was presented in court.”
Finding a more reliable EDTA test was specifically mentioned by Avery’s lawyer Jerome Buting as one of the last, best chances they have of getting Avery a new trial. So, you know, if you have access to a university lab and a research project to do, this would be a good thing to try to develop. And regardless of what you think about the ins and outs of Avery’s case, I don’t know how much clearer defense incompetence would have to be in order for Brendan Dassey to get a new trial.
I’ve heard people try to say that Moira Demos and Barbara Ricciardi were somehow trying to turn this case into personal profit. While I could never rule out documentary filmmakers spinning or streamlining in a way that might be considered unfair to the truth, the filmmakers on this case worked on the story for 10 years before it hit Netflix. I don’t know how much Netflix paid, but having been part of a documentary that’s available online myself, I can tell you with a fair deal of certainty that if their goal was to make a big profit, there are much, much better ways.
More developments as they come, as always…
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.