Law enforcement was a central theme for much of 2015. Black Lives Matter exploded into prominence largely in response to ongoing police violence in Black communities. Many conservatives swore a war on the police had erupted (and were subsequently refuted). Violence around the globe forced national security concerns to the forefront of most presidential campaigns. The question of the year seemed to be “who will keep us safe, and from whom?”
And as we begin 2016, everyone is talking about Netflix’s new 10 part docuseries Making a Murderer. The draw isn’t too difficult to understand: the story centers on the real-life trials of Wisconsin natives Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, who stood accused of raping and murdering 25-year-old Teresa Halbach in 2005. The stakes are real. The twists are mind-blowing. The story is excellently put together and based on a decade of comprehensive work done by the show’s creators Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos. Most compellingly, it calls into question the very fabric of our nation: the justice system many hold so dear may not be all that just after all.
Making a Murderer begins with another case against Steve Avery, in which he is accused and convicted of an attempted rape and serves 18 years. Over the course of those nearly 2 decades, DNA testing evolved enough to prove conclusively that he did not commit the attack, and he was released. The filmmakers are then able to show how his false conviction was due, at least in part, to major police fumbles, including refusing to follow up on other, more promising leads and an improperly conducted facial composite sketch. The filmmakers also highlight the fact that a cousin with a substantial grudge against Avery was married to a sheriff’s deputy in the department that arrested him.
After unfairly serving 18 years, Avery becomes somewhat of a local sensation. Lawmakers draft a bill in his name intended to prevent false convictions. He sues the city for $36 million. And then suddenly, Teresa Halbach, who was scheduled to meet and take pictures of Avery’s car for AutoTrader magazine, goes missing. With the pending lawsuit, the timing of her disappearance is questionable enough on its own, but what follows over the course of the next eight episodes is even more disturbingly suspicious. The inconsistencies are countless, and the end result is that almost every viewer is left cursing the system (and the individuals) that eventually lead to a conviction. We are wondering, if this can happen at the hands of the police, who will keep us safe from those who are supposed to keep us safe?
The Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office—the same office responsible for his previous arrest and false conviction—are not only heavily involved in the new case, but find key evidence against Avery. We watch as Brendan Dassey, 16-years-old at the time and interviewed without his mother, or a lawyer and with a low IQ, is aggressively coerced into admitting to helping his uncle rape and murder Halbach. We see the depth of how little he understands, when he heartbreakingly asks his interrogators if he can return to his high school class—this, after confessing to an almost fantastical act of utter brutality.
Dassey is then represented by a public defender, who admitted to not believing his client and to conspiring with prosecutors in Avery’s case to help them obtain a conviction.
Dassey’s coerced statement indicated a bloodbath in the Avery home, though no trace of blood is found there. A flattened bullet with Teresa’s DNA is uncovered days into the search, only when the Manitowoc detectives are allowed to investigate the home on their own. Steve Avery’s blood is discovered in Halbach’s car, but a vial of his blood from the previous case is found to have been opened and tampered with.
According to a December Gallup poll, 56% of Americans rate the honesty and ethics of police officers as “high” or “very high,” up from 48% in 2014, with 64% of whites feeling that way. This, despite the work of the Movement for Black Lives in the past few years, access to camera footage of officers shooting a 12 year old child within seconds of pulling up to him (and getting away with it), and a fairly publicized trial and conviction of an officer accused of raping at least 12 women and one child over the course of several years.
With that in mind, the shocked response to Making a Murderer is unsurprising. America—specifically White America—consistently refuses to believe in the fallibility of its system. Tamir Rice was Black. Those 13 victims in the Daniel Holtzclaw case were, too. “Who will keep us safe?” was never the same question with the same answers for everyone, because some of “us” aren’t white.
The blond hair and blue eyes of Steven Avery fly in the face of the presupposed idea that law enforcement keeps white people safe. Avery shows how white people can also become a government threat and be handled accordingly, the same way Black people and other people of color have been handled for centuries. In a sense, he becomes quite the paradox—shedding light on a police culture that basks in freedom from accountability for most crimes, but only giving importance to combatting that culture when the victim is white and relatable.
So far, more than 355,000 people have signed a change.org petition demanding Steve Avery be pardoned (The White House just issued an official response). I can’t help but wonder how many of the white people who signed also demanded justice for Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland. I wonder who these people give the benefit of the doubt to, in other cases involving questionable police activity—and if this one story might impact their answer to that in the future. I wonder if it might impact their answer to that for every victim, or if such a response will be reserved for those who look like Steven Avery.
I wonder, because even if Steven Avery was falsely convicted twice, his two cases wouldn’t come close to tipping the scales that are so imbalanced, where Black people make up 68% of those exonerated using DNA testing and less than 13% of the population.
The marketing for Making a Murderer left us to question what it was, precisely, that was “making a murderer.” Was it all that Avery experienced during his previous sentence, or was it the cops themselves—and did that act of “making” create a real murderer or just the façade of one? Upon completion of the series, it’s clear who the filmmakers blame for this false “making” of Avery into a “murderer,” and I can see why.
But I also can’t help but think of all the “murderers” White America has “made” every time they believe, without question, the official story of how that gun appeared. Every time a cop’s testimony disputes video evidence and they still walk free. Every time a Black teen runs through bullets out of an illogical death-wish, because a cop said he did.
I can’t help thinking about how so many of those “murderers” White America makes are Black, and so many of the murderers it makes are cops, and how the scare quotes make it even more real for so many of us.
Hari Ziyad is a Brooklyn-based storyteller. He is the Editor-in-Chief of RaceBaitR, and his work has been featured on Gawker, Out, Ebony, Mic, Colorlines, Black Girl Dangerous, Young Colored and Angry, The Feminist Wire and The Each Other Project. He is also an assistant editor for Vinyl Poetry & Prose and a contributing writer for Everyday Feminism. Sometimes, he goes by “they.”