Full confession: I haven’t actually finished watching Making a Murderer yet. But thanks to the internet (and a healthy pessimism about the universe) I know how it ends. I went home to the UK for a couple of weeks over Christmas, and nestled under the warm blanket of nostalgic films and familiar TV specials. The BBC obliged me with, not only a fantastic three-part Agatha Christie adaptation, but the heart-stopping excitement of
Benedict Cumberbatch in a tartan suit a one-off Sherlock episode.* Confident that I had won the gold medal for festive TV viewing, I returned home to Canada to find that the whole continent had spent their turkey-coma days bingeing on Making a Murderer. I had some catching up to do.
The first episode of MaM has enough material for a series by itself. You’re pulled in to the familiar arc of one man’s wrongful conviction, fight for justice, and eventual exoneration. What happens next seems to beggar belief; you find yourself checking the internet to ensure this is not an incredibly well produced docudrama. The amount of material available, from recorded telephone calls to courtroom footage, allows us to watch the case unfold in incredible detail. It’s like Season One of Serial, except…crazier. And with pictures.
Some of my favorite scenes are conversations between Avery’s defense team, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting. Perched on the couch in dad jeans and bare feet, chewing over the details of the case and their upcoming strategy, they are the opposite of the usual glamorous TV lawyers. Get them in front of a jury or a gaggle of reporters, however, and they pull no punches. This combination of down-to-earth relatability and skillful court performances have earned the duo legions of admirers. Strang in particular is on his way to becoming both an internet heartthrob and a fashion icon, after his ‘normcore’ style inspired its own Tumblr.
As with any case that gains this high a profile, the controversy has begun. Critics point to crucial information left out of the documentary, and the breadth of conspiracy required to manufacture all of the evidence against Avery. Some accuse the show of misleading viewers in order to make Avery’s case. But the aim of a documentarian, or indeed a trial lawyer, is not to search for ‘truth’. It is to present a compelling story that resonates with their audience. Any ‘truth’ to be found in a court of law comes from the clash of two competing narratives. The two sides choose which parts of the messy accumulation of information they wish to emphasize – or obscure – to make their case. The only hope for justice is that this process operates according to the rules. That one story is not given a higher billing or wider distribution. That the illustrating facts are honestly collected, fully disclosed and thoroughly interrogated by the opposition.
Watching MaM or listening to Serial, we are reminded of the power law enforcement and the judiciary possess to shape the narrative that reaches a jury’s ears. We see how the system’s checks and balances – such as the presumption of innocence – can fail in the face of corruption. For Steven Avery or Adnan Syed, their story was unfairly overshadowed when it mattered most, and their lives forever altered as a result. By revisiting their cases, we are at last allowed to hear an alternative narrative, and to redress a balance lost during their days in court. Whether the verdict was correct is something only they can truly know. What matters to us as a society is how it was achieved. As ever, Dean Strang says it better than I can:
That’s why he’s a heartthrob, and I’m just a blogger.
*More on this later.