Netflix's Making a Murderer — a bleak, somber true crime documentary that consists mainly of courtroom footage — has become an unexpected sensation. The series, which traces the story of Wisconsinite Steven Avery, uses Avery's case as a lens to examine the American legal system as a whole.
Avery was convicted of a vicious sexual assault in 1985 but exonerated after nearly two decades in prison, when DNA evidence cleared him of the crime and led to the conviction of someone else. However, in 2005, just a couple of years after Avery's 2003 release, he was the last person to see photographer Teresa Halbach alive — and evidence seemed to suggest he killed her. Avery went to trial in 2007, was convicted of Halbach's murder, and has been in prison ever since.
Yet Making a Murderer directors Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi felt there was more to Avery's story. The pair moved to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, for two years, attending Avery's 2007 trial, then followed the case over the next decade to witness its aftermath, crafting it into a documentary they had trouble selling until Netflix decided to take it on.
After Making a Murderer's launch on the streaming service in December, the documentary exploded in popularity. Now Avery's case is the subject of countless headlines and internet debate, with petitions to pardon Avery making their way to the White House and articles discussing which elements of Avery's story the series left out popping up everywhere.
In the process, the series' examination of the problems with the American legal system is increasingly being glossed over.
Keeping that in mind, I got on the phone with Demos and Ricciardi to discuss why they omitted certain information from the series, what they were most surprised to learn about our country's legal system, and why prosecutors often seem so unwilling to consider evidence that may contradict their case.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Making a Murderer has become a phenomenon since Netflix released it. As the directors, you're not immediately associated with it like an actor would be, but what's it been like to see it blow up across the country?
It's an exciting time, but honestly it's hard for us to get a sense of how much it's blown up, because we're surrounded by people we know. Of course they're talking about the series, but we have yet to have that experience of being on the subway car and eavesdropping on people talking about it. We've had friends report things like that.
The whole reason we made this series was to try to bring light to this story and to [explore] the American criminal justice system and to start a dialogue about how we can do better, and the fact that so many people around the world and so many different kinds of people are watching and responding to different things and talking has been really thrilling for us.
As a nation, we're having so many conversations right now about our relationship to the people who are supposed to be keeping us safe. In making the documentary, what most surprised you about the US legal system — in terms of both the police and the prosecution sides of it?
I think what I learned the most in doing this, and what I found the most shocking, was I went into this rather naively, as someone who doesn't have a law background or has not had involvement in the courts. I was, as most people are, sort of a casual observer of the justice system. I think I believed that trials were going to be based on the evidence in the courtroom. There were going to be two sides who would be arguing out.
And what I learned was how important and how powerful the process leading up to the trial is, [including] the pretrial court proceedings and how many decisions the judge makes that have an enormous effect on the way the trial goes. The pretrial media. That's one of the many meanings of the title — all of the ingredients that it takes to make a murderer. It's so many factors, and I think I really didn't understand that before experiencing this story.
I would agree. I think what emerges from the documentary is how many factors are in play in matters of this nature. As Moira mentioned, there are all of these forces, such as the media and of course public opinion, and one of the things that was clear in these cases was that it was going to be challenging to find 12 people and alternates who had not been exposed to pretrial publicity in either Steven Avery or Brendan Dassey's case.
[Dassey is Avery's nephew, who was key to the case against Avery and was also convicted in crimes related to Halbach's murder.]
Steven's lawyers ultimately opted for a Manitowoc jury, whereas Brendan Dassey's lawyers sought to bring in an outside jury, but it's about the way in which the defendant is disadvantaged, especially in a high-profile case, when so much of the evidence has already been made public at the pretrial stage.
And then there were things like a Dateline piece aired about a year in advance of Steven Avery's trial. It's national. It's primetime. Is it possible for an accused to get a fair trial in a situation like that?
After watching, something I was left wondering is why, especially in the first prosecution in 1985 where there were obvious problems with the case, it seemed like the prosecutors weren't willing to pursue those. Having lived with this case and the American legal system for a while, do you have feelings on why prosecutors in so many cases, not just this one, are so eager to go after the first person they've accused, even when doubts spring up?
It does point to a flaw in our design and a flaw in our public attitude. The public cares about prosecutors' conviction rates. It's about winning the trial. And just practically speaking, if you've started to build the case against one person, and information [that contradicts it] comes, it's potentially a weak choice to change course, because the defense can point to, "Well, you thought it was this other person." So that's evidence that it's not the person you're now saying it is.
If we prioritize conviction rates rather than having just verdicts, and if we vote that way in elections, this problem will just continue.
In a way, elected officials are taking their cues from their constituents, and if constituents are saying, "Look, we're not interested in you running on a platform of tough on crime — what we're interested in is you doing an ethical job and pursuing justice," I think in that sense, then elected officials probably will feel less pressure.
I also think it's interesting to note that the vast majority of cases don't even go to trial. Most defendants plead out, so when a prosecutor is in a position of taking a matter to trial, it's a significant investment of their time and their resources, and they're in it to win.
So if the focus and the objective of prosecutors shifts away from winning to doing justice, and then if they come across potentially exculpatory evidence [which could prove the defendant is not guilty] or actually exculpatory evidence, that person might be more inclined to turn it over to the defense, as they're required to. You'd see fewer abuses and things of that nature, and the system would be fairer.
A sizable faction of people on the internet have taken it upon themselves to exonerate Avery, or at least to reopen his case. And while your goal with Making a Murderer was to discuss the legal system as a whole and not to explicitly rule on his guilt or innocence, are you surprised that that's been the takeaway for everybody signing petitions?
I wouldn't say I'm surprised by it, especially given last year's phenomenon with Serial and how many people took to the internet to try to dig into that case, and this idea of amateur sleuths. But I do feel like that sort of behavior doesn't really engage with what this series is really about.
One of the things we track, in 1985 case and, I would argue as well, in the 2005 case, is the danger of rushing to judgment. And it's just as dangerous for somebody online to go dig up one piece of information and then say, "So-and-so is the one who did it," as it is for a member of law enforcement to do the same thing and to have tunnel vision and decide immediately [who the criminal is].
What we try to encourage through the series and through the structure of the series and the end of the series is to have people embrace the complexity of these matters, and to check themselves on why they are looking for answers so hard that they can't tolerate any ambiguity and might rush to conclusions.
We've learned from people who've reached out to us through social media that they were moved by it in some way. Some have expressed horror or rage, even. And signing a petition is a way for people to take some form of action and to channel those emotions in a constructive way.
We can't speak, obviously, to individuals' motivations for signing a particular petition. For certain individuals, it could specifically be about something they want to see happen for Steven Avery or Brendan Dassey, but another way to look at it is just as some sort of outlet for people to stand up and be heard about their response to what they've learned through the series.
What aspects of this story are unique to the fact that it took place in a relatively small town where everybody kind of knew who Steven Avery was, even before his first conviction?
It's a little bit hard to say, but perhaps one example is what the defense was up against in trying to make an argument that Steven was being framed by law enforcement. That's a very different argument to make in a big city, where the jury member is not going to run into the police officer at the diner. I think there's some evidence of that [in Avery's case].
We were contacted by a juror [shortly after the series debuted], and this person said that they were not convinced of Steven's guilt but they were scared for their personal safety. They were going to be the ones to hold out for a mistrial. I don't know if something like that would happen in a big city, so maybe that's one example.
There have been a lot of people digging into the things that happened at the trial that were left out of the documentary. Obviously even in 10 hours you can't include everything, but in some cases, it seemed like some of what was left out was left out to influence our view of Steven Avery's guilt or innocence. How did you make the call on what to leave in the film?
We looked to the [prosecution] to take our cues on what to include. So we included the things they said were the cornerstones of their case against Steven Avery.
What's troubling now is that [former District Attorney] Ken Kratz is coming out in the media and making statements about evidence that was left out, but nobody's asking him what his sources are, and nobody's fact-checking that evidence. This is a man who takes a piece of information and stretches it and twists it and turns it into a story, and if you look at any one of these things he's mentioning, the seed of where his story starts is very far away from what he's saying in the media.
We would encourage anyone who is taking what Ken Kratz says at face value to take that information and claims of evidence and go back to the transcripts. Go to any part of the public record, and check what he's saying.
Making a Murderer is streaming in its entirety on Netflix.