Fifteen years ago if you had an extensive collection of serial killer literature on your bookshelf your date might leave with certain preconceptions about you and they might not be in a hurry to see you again. These days they’ll probably ask you what podcasts you’re listening to, whether you’ve seen The Staircase or who you think really killed Sister Cathy in The Keepers. True crime has come out of the closet and the first major show on Netflix that did that was Making a Murderer. Even if you were living under a rock three years ago you’d still have heard about it. It was easily Netflix’s most talked-about series ever, and arguably the most important true crime TV show in decades. Now it returns for a long-awaited second series.
The original investigative filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos are back and hard at work, embedded in the ongoing troubles of the Avery family and their apparent relentless persecution by the American justice system. If you need a quick refresher Steven Avery was originally convicted of a sexual assault on Penny Beerntsen despite having a solid alibi. For that he served an 18 year sentence. That conviction was finally overturned in 2003 and he was freed. He then filed a $36 million civil lawsuit against Manitowoc County and the law enforcement officers who framed him. Just two years later Avery and his 16 year old nephew Brendan Dassey were tried and convicted by those same institutions for Teresa Halbach’s murder. She’d disappeared after photographing a car at Avery’s salvage yard. The hugely flawed conviction was clear to anyone with even a passing interest in how the police should work as vulnerable Brendan was coerced into his confession during a hugely irresponsible questioning where he had no responsible adult or legal council present. The video footage of his confession remains grueling to watch.
The case was given a huge media spotlight, thanks to the international success of the documentary and despite speculation that both Steven and Brendan would be awarded a retrial, at the start of series two they are both still in prison. The first series had such an impact that the then President of the United States had to release a statement saying his office couldn’t overturn a state conviction.
All the more fodder for the filmmakers. Of course they’ll be happy to talk about the success of the show but to their credit, they don’t shy away from the negative impact it had either. The passionate audience response seems to have taken almost everyone involved by surprise. The convicted men receive so many cards and letters in prison they know the outside world hasn’t forgotten them. Steven’s mother Dolores has a scrapbook made by one fan and Brendan’s mother Barbara has a quilt stitched by another from which they draw comfort. It seems slightly unhinged for someone you’ve never met to do this but they’ve been swept up in the drama. These strong outpourings of emotion feel like support to the family still living in Manitowoc County and dealing with their notoriety. Somewhat inevitably, alongside this positivity we have the death threats sent to Ken Kratz, the original Special Prosecutor, and others on the State’s side of the case. I can absolutely understand why people would have been outraged enough to protest outside the court building. People are frustrated at the system that claims to represent them and they want to make their voices heard, but it’s indefensible when that anger becomes harassment and threats.
And between the two raucous factions stoked by the media circus we have the Halbach family and friends, quietly but firmly trying to keep her memory alive. I wonder whether they knew what they were getting into. Their powerful statement accuses Netflix and all associated with the series of making “profit from our loss”. The part in true crime that often gets forgotten is the word “true”. There are real victims, real suffering, real grief. This isn’t Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers or Raymond Chandler. This isn’t yet another beautiful dead woman on CSI or Law and Order. This is real life. True crime is entertainment, but our enthusiasm should always be tempered with this knowledge.
The first few episodes of this series deal with the stories of Brendan and Steven’s new legal teams – the post-conviction lawyers. Enter Kathleen Zellner, who holds the record for reversing more wrongful conviction cases than any other private attorney in America. Zellner is clear from the outset – she’s determined to never again represent someone who is guilty. Historically Zellner had defended a serial killer who confessed his 21 murders to her (dealt with as a side note here but easily worthy of a series all to itself).
While Brendan’s conviction is based entirely on his flawed confession, Steven’s is based entirely on circumstantial forensics. The blood stains and DNA in Teresa’s car are key to the whole case, and Zellner agrees. The dots aren’t joined up so she and her team get down to work with extensive, sometimes gory, experiments to try and replicate what the prosecution says happened. It’s quickly apparent that it didn’t happen like they said it did in court. Zellner says “Once I uncover one lie I know there’s a whole lot more”. It’s up to Zellner not just to show Steven didn’t and couldn’t have killed Teresa, but to show how it was done, and maybe point to who as well. When that’s spelled out it seems like an insurmountable task but Zellner seems like the sort of woman to inspire great confidence. Dassey now seems legally well looked after too, with experts Steve Drizin and Laura Nirider in his corner. They have a sign on the wall in their office ‘Coerced confession = Wrongful conviction’.
It’s gratifying for the audience to see Zellner jump on the same holes in the evidence as the audience did, especially flagging up the villain of the piece, prosecutor Ken Kratz. Zellner accuses him of “egregious prosecutorial misconduct” and says it will be “a pleasure to unmask Mr Kratz”. He says he was just doing his job, and he and his original team stand by the convictions, despite them looking remarkably shaky to the rest of us. He’s also adamant that Ricciardi and Demos left vital evidence out of series one as it didn’t fit their narrative. Their right of reply is another 10 part critically-acclaimed series; his is just a handful of interviews to the media which doesn’t seem exactly well-balanced.
As with the first series, Making a Murderer is a tough watch. We’re all hoping for some progress, or at least assurance that people working in the justice system are trying to solve the problems highlighted, but it remains clear that US judicial and legal process are weighted heavily against people in poverty, people without much education, people with learning disabilities or mental illnesses. It’s been three high-profile years but little has changed.
The big question for viewers, maybe bigger still than “What really happened?” is “Can it really be as gripping as the original?” Well, so far, so good. We have the trademark manipulative but totally thrilling cliffhangers to encourage a massive weekend binge. But can there really be enough twists and turns to sustain another meaty and detail-heavy ten episode run? And are the filmmakers highlighting miscarriages of justice in a public-spirited attempt to change the system or are they merely cashing in on a tragic, legal soap opera? As long as they keep the suffering families in mind at all times, both Halbach and Avery, we as viewers can remain hopeful.