The Problem of Justice in Netflix’s “Making a Murderer”

by Francis Adams




One of the most talked-about shows at the moment is the Netflix documentary series, Making a Murderer, which tells the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who served 18 years in prison for a wrongful rape conviction. Two years after eventually being found innocent and released from prison, he was arrested and charged with the murder of 25 year-old photographer, Teresa Halbach. The show is riveting from the beginning, as it continually demands that the audience throws away its certitude from one moment to the next as new information is revealed. We are gradually exposed to a criminal justice system that wrongfully imprisoned Avery—effectively stealing eighteen years of his life—and to the possibility that the very same thing might be happening again, as the evidence implicating Avery in the murder—which at first seemed incontrovertible—begins to come into question. As the case unfolds, it seems more and more plausible that certain key pieces of evidence could even have been planted to frame Avery by the same law enforcement that wrongfully convicted him twenty years ago.


With that said, it is important to note that the series has come under criticism from the state prosecutor, Ken Kratz, for being essentially an advocacy piece for Steven Avery. He mentions that other pieces of important evidence, which implicate Avery in the murder, were left out of the documentary entirely. This is surely crucial information to have in coming to an evaluation of the show’s objectivity, but even with this piece of information, I am of the opinion that it is still far from clear that Avery was rightfully convicted.


Leaving aside the fact that the show is biased towards Steven Avery, I think there is still much to learn from it regarding the ways in which human’s legal justice relates to God’s justice in the messy reality of our world. One of the things I gained from this series is the sense that Avery’s entire life has been dominated (for better or worse) by his encounter with the American criminal justice system. He served eighteen years for a crime he did not commit before two years later being tried as a murderer, convicted, and sent back to prison for life. Over the course of the show, we witness Avery age dramatically and lose much of the jovial spirit of his youth. One cannot help but sympathize with him, as he comes across as a harmless and simple man who’s had some of the worst luck imaginable. We also see the trials take their toll on his family – especially his parents who exude a deep anger and sadness throughout the show, insisting that their son is innocent.


On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the Halbach family who receive much scanter treatment (a definite failure of objectivity on the filmmakers’ part). Throughout the series, they passionately express the desire for Avery to be convicted as quickly as possible so that the brutal murder of their loved one will not be utterly in vain. Another thread that I personally find very interesting (although it is not discussed in the show, for good reason) came when looking into the backgrounds of Avery’s defense lawyers and finding out that one of them, Jerry Buting, in addition to being a razor sharp attorney, is a faithful Christian. In an interview with the National Catholic Reporter, he tells us that he looks at his career as more of a vocation than a job: “Jesus reached out to the underclass of society, including the poor, mentally ill and imprisoned, and so did we. They are humans the same as anyone, but often are cast aside by the rest of society. Unfortunately, society doesn't want to provide the financial and other resources for those who are charged with or convicted of crimes.” Later, he remarks, “When I have a client facing a serious criminal charge, I always encourage them to develop or deepen their spiritual life. They don't always take my advice, but that's always their choice -- even with regard to legal advice. I've found that those who have a faith life can endure the challenges of a criminal prosecution for themselves or their loved one much better than those who do not.” In reading this, I thought immediately of a moment in the series in which Avery develops a love interest with a woman who reaches out to him in prison for spiritual guidance. The letters they exchange – peppered with mention of Christ’s love – are very moving and illustrate Buting’s observation rather poignantly.


In thinking, then, of the show as a whole and what it might have to say about justice, I find myself impressed by the way in which it opens us up to the fact that there are so many points of view to be considered in this case – so many vectors aiming towards the same end of Truth and Justice, many of which point in opposite directions. Given this reality, it is humbling to realize that even our most deeply felt convictions regarding truth, or how justice is to be attained in the world, will almost inevitably conflict with those of others, and that we are far removed from the knowledge of absolute truth, of the ultimate Justice that we as Christians believe will be meted out on the Last Day.


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