The new Netflix obsession, Making a Murderer, is a sensation. Blogs, news programs, articles, magazines, newspapers and water cooler conversations are all immersed in the quest to answer the eternal question: did he do it?
The evidence seems to point in both directions. The Netflix documentary itself shines heavy light on the absurdity and outrageousness of the prosecution against Steven Avery. It’s hard to walk away from viewing the documentary and not be fairly certain that the police officers engaged in at least some miscarriages of justice, and at least had some hand in what and how evidence was found in the case. To put it in simple terms, the evidence against the officers and the portions of the trial included in the documentary clearly highlighted that the police were, at the very least, being sketchy. Suddenly finding the victim’s car key in plain view after numerous searches, with none of the victim’s DNA but some of the accused’s DNA, is extremely suspicious, if not an obvious indication that the evidence was planted. As Steven’s trial lawyers pointed out in the documentary, if the police are willing to plant the key, what else would they be capable of fabricating?
Then we have the post-documentary backlash from prosecutor Ken Kratz and others, reporting that many important and compelling pieces of evidence were omitted from the documentary. For instance, there is the alleged fact that Avrey had phoned the victim’s place of business several times that day and specifically requested her attendance on his property.
Steven Avrey’s ex-fiancé Jodi Stachowski, who was also featured in Making a Murderer when the two were dating, has reported to media that Avrey tied her to a bed with rope and wanted to have sex with her while she was restrained. On that basis she thinks Brandon Dassey’s statement to police containing details of the victim’s sexual assault was truthful. She’s also gone public with a letter apparently sent to her from Avrey in an attempt to cast light on the “real” Steven Avrey that isn’t shown in the documentary.
All of this information, and much more, guides opinions and sparks debate and curiosity. Based on media alone, most people have decided whether or not he did it. People feel certain in their conclusions and either condemn or commend the justice system. Those who believe he’s innocent sign petitions, protest, and relentlessly support Steven’s appeal on the basis that he is innocent. Those who believe he’s guilty use that conclusion as a basis to determine whether or not Avrey deserves what happened to him: if he’s guilty, then who cares that much if the police planted evidence: he is where he should be.
However, what’s being conflated in the minds of those who have convinced themselves they are certain of the truth, is the evidence of whether he committed the murder and the concept of reasonable doubt and the right to a fair trial. Justice does not exist when someone is convicted after not receiving a fair trial. Our justice system is not working if there exists a reasonable doubt, yet an individual is convicted. Legal rights exist to safeguard everyone from the powers, influence and resources of the state. Condoning a conviction where the evidence and prosecution falls below that threshold is to condone abuses of power and miscarriages of justice.
What’s captured in Making a Murderer , despite the defence-friendly content, is enough to demonstrate that neither Avrey nor Brandon Dassey received a fair trial. A fair trial includes the right to an impartial jury. A fair trial includes the right to the presumption of innocence, and sound rulings on the admissibility of evidence. On these principles alone, we should champion the prospect of an appeal and ensure the justice system operates as it ought to, and not as a bear trap for the rights of those caught in the hysteria of sensational cases. Real, admissible evidence ought to be presented by the prosecution, and challenged by the defence. An impartial trier then decides a verdict based on this evidence. Neither Avrey nor Dassey were given all of these simple promises of our justice systems. Yet hoards of people, despite not having any actual access to the entirety of the evidence in Avery’s case, have decided he’s guilty of murdering Teresa Halbach and are outraged at the prospect of an appellate decision in his favour.
If there is reasonable doubt in any case, the only verdict that is just is a verdict of not guilty. Not guilty does not mean innocent. A court of appeal ought to not only declare such miscarriages of justice, but also seek to remedy them. Such a decision by an appellate court is not a declaration of innocence. It would be a declaration that our human rights are not lost, or trampled over by the state. It would be a promise by our justice system that everyone deserves a fair trial— despite whatever the Internet tells you to believe.