Making a Murderer is more frightening and devastating than most true crime series. The show is no fun. In fact, it’s exhausting to watch. It sucks the hope, and the wind, out of you. Still, like the best dramas in the true crime genre, the brilliant 10-part Netflix show beats a steady drum of tragedy, shock, and disappointment.
Viewers, readers, and listeners like me who find themselves obsessed with stories like the one told in Making a Murderer have come to recognize a rhythm in their misery. According to the now well-worn true crime formula, first come the pangs of innocence robbed: we learn someone has died, or has been assaulted, or has disappeared altogether. We mourn for this victim first, keenly aware that there is more despair to come.
Any good true crime involves layers of overlapping tragedy. In The Thin Blue Line, Errol Morris’s 1988 documentary that gave birth to the modern pop genre, we sympathize with both a slain Dallas cop and Randall Dale Adams, the man wrongly convicted of the officer’s murder. Morris’s film led to Adams’s exoneration, and some have suggested it’s possible that a similar fate is in store for Steven Avery, the subject of Making a Murderer.
I doubt it. It’s clear from the get-go that Avery is, in a word, fucked. Making a Murderer follows the same rhythms as its true crime predecessors, but with hardly any hope. Between 1985 and 2003, after being wrongfully convicted of rape, Avery spent 18 years in prison until improvements in DNA testing led to his exoneration. Two years after Avery’s release, police arrested him in connection to an unrelated murder, and with that conviction, Avery found himself back in a prison cell.
A propulsive energy drives the storytelling of Making a Murderer. It’s impossible to stop watching, so it is ideal for Netflix, which released all 10 episodes at once. And while at times difficult to watch, the show depends on a different type of suspense than most true crime: the drama does not depend on demonstrating innocence; rather, it hangs on determining guilt.
The distinction between the two questions is subtle, one that also came up in the first season of Serial to a lesser degree. Most true crime involves a whodunit of some sort. This is true of Serial, and the brilliance of that show derived from the maddening uncertainty surrounding Adnan Syed and the murder of Hae Min Lee. After every episode of Serial, listeners contemplated and debated one question: Did he do it? Not so with Making a Murderer, which sidesteps this issue and substitutes an even more important dilemma: Was Avery guilty?
The key phrase, which comes up again and again in Making a Murderer, is reasonable doubt. Prosecutors must establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt in order to convict someone in a criminal trial. In this way, you can be found not guilty without being innocent. A not-guilty verdict for a not-innocent person doesn’t necessarily signal a failure of the justice system. It can reflect a healthy criminal justice system yielding to the Constitution’s emphasis on the presumption of innocence.
As Dean Strang, one of Steven Avery’s heroic lawyers who feature heavily in Making a Murderer, put it, “Most of what ails our criminal justice system lies in unwarranted certitude on the part of police officers and prosecutors and defense lawyers and judges and jurors that they’re getting it right, that they simply are right—just a tragic lack of humility of everyone who participates in our criminal justice system.”
It’s scary to consider the prospect of a murderer going free, but it’s scarier still to think of an innocent person being imprisoned, or executed, for a crime he did not commit. Making a Murderer investigates the role of police misconduct in these injustices, drawing on the current debate surrounding police procedure. The show complements the many stories that have surfaced dealing with racial bias in policing. Last July, Rachel Aviv wrote a story for The New Yorker about Louisiana’s Caddo Parish and the murder of an infant for which the child’s 23-year-old father Rodricus Crawford was accused. After waking up next to his lifeless son, Crawford was tried, convicted of murder, and sentenced to death, all based on evidence that Aviv’s story compellingly calls into question. He’s most likely not the only in this situation. “Juries in Caddo Parish, which has a population of two hundred and fifty thousand, now sentence more people to death per capita than juries in any other county in America,” Aviv explained in The New Yorker. Over the course of the past 40 years, 77 percent of those executed in the Caddo Parish were black.
Less of a systemic failure, Avery’s predicament feels like being in the wrong place at the wrong time, which adds a particular gravity to the question of his guilt. It’s staggering to imagine that Avery could now, for the second time in his life, be behind bars for a crime he did not commit. “If I’m gonna be perfectly candid,” Strang said in the show’s final episode, “there’s a big part of me that really hopes Steven Avery’s guilt of this crime, because the thought of him being innocent of this crime and sitting in prison again for something he didn’t do, and now for the rest of his life without a prayer of parole—I can’t take that.” Making a Murderer makes you take that possibility and forces you to wonder if you can still call it justice.