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    Reasonable Doubt

    Do true crime documentaries like Making a Murderer encourage vigilante justice? March 3, 2016 by Kristin Ostensen
    Filed Under:
    Opinion & Critical Thought
    It's a case that proves the old saying that truth is stranger than fiction. In 1985, a Wisconsin man named Steven Avery was convicted of rape and attempted murder, and served 18 years before finally being exonerated by DNA evidence. An attorney general inquiry revealed many instances of misconduct throughout the investigation, leading Avery to file a lawsuit to the tune of $36 million.

    But all refused to be well. In a twist of fate, only two years after he regained his freedom, Avery was back in the courts, accused of murdering Teresa Halbach, a local photographer. His subsequent trial and conviction, along with the ensuing appeals, is the subject of Making a Murderer, a new 10-part Netflix documentary series.

    The series took the world by storm early this year, generating countless headlines and sparking a furious debate over Avery's guilt and the way in which the police and prosecution handled the case. By mid-January, more than 450,000 people had signed a Change.org petition to have Avery set free.

    The true crime genre has experienced a great resurgence recently, thanks in large part to the Serial podcast. Over the course of 12 episodes released in fall 2014, the first season of Serial investigated the 1999 murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee from Baltimore, calling into question the conviction of Lee's ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed. The podcast, now in its second season (which focuses on a different story), has millions of downloads and won a Peabody Award in 2015. Because of Serial, Syed's post-conviction relief proceedings were reopened in February 2016.

    If you've watched or listened to either series, it's not hard to understand their appeal. The in-depth documentary format gives us the feeling of investigating with the filmmakers—as they seek the truth, so do we. And because the case is real, we know the stakes are high—a person's life hangs in the balance—and any new discovery or new piece of evidence could change everything. As with any good television drama, it's thrilling.

    The documentary also gives us the opportunity to be judge and jury, hearing the case for the first time. Most of the time, the process of justice is hidden from us, taking place behind closed doors in lawyers' offices and courtrooms. A true crime documentary lifts the veil, exposing the process to our observation—and our scrutiny.

    That scrutiny is why these documentaries matter. Sometimes the justice system gets it wrong, and by drawing attention to cases where mistakes have (or may have) been made, documentaries can help right that wrong. This alone should be enough to create interest in these documentaries among Christians. The fact that incarceration rates tend to be higher among vulnerable populations only underscores the need for justice seekers. Documentaries can give a voice to people who would otherwise not have one.

    But true crime documentaries have their pitfalls as well, not least of which is dredging up the past for victims' families. What is entertainment for the masses is a never-ending nightmare for those personally affected by the crimes. Since Making a Murderer was released, both Netflix and the filmmakers, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, have been accused of exploiting the case—and retraumatizing the family—for profit.

    Ricciardi and Demos have also been accused of being selective with the evidence they included in their docu-series, leaving out facts that supported Avery's guilt. This is a legitimate concern—the court of public opinion, unlike the court of law, has no obligation to hear both sides of a case. Viewers rely on filmmakers to present a fair and balanced portrait of the events. Critics, including Halbach's family, have called Making a Murderer one-sided. (The same could not be said of Serial, which has listeners oscillating between guilt and innocence to the very end.) Without proper ethics to guide investigations, true crime documentaries run the risk of encouraging vigilante justice—with the Internet being the ideal breeding ground for mob-like tendencies.

    Whatever flaws the series may have, the conversation sparked by Making a Murderer is an important one. In a January interview with Late Show host Stephen Colbert, Ricciardi and Demos shared that they see the series as a “howdunit” rather than a “whodunit”—their chief concern was documenting the justice process. More than just questioning Avery's guilt, they hope the series will shed light on failings in that process and cause viewers to check their own biases toward people who have been accused of crimes. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a pillar of our justice system that cannot be compromised, whether a case garners national attention or not.

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