The art of manipulation
True crime and entertainment in Netflix’s ‘Making a Murderer’
Sometimes, while giving workshops on life writing, I’ve had conversations that seem – at the very least – morally suspect. How much detail would best convey the marriage breakdown? Would it be preferable to start the story with the suicide attempt, or gradually build up to it? These are the considerations of art, or of entertainment, in which allegiance to the truth is but one concern among many. Regardless of purity of intent, any work created for an audience is a work of manipulation.
I thought of this recently while gripped, mercilessly, by the ten-part Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. Created by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, the series presents the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder in 1985. Eighteen years later, Avery was exonerated by DNA evidence. He subsequently filed a $36 million civil suit against Manitowoc County before being arrested again, this time for the rape and murder of a young woman, Teresa Halbach. From episode two, the series documents the police investigation of Avery and the resulting court case, alongside those of his teenage nephew and alleged accomplice, Brendan Dassey.
As raw material, this story has everything any documentary-maker could hope for: a colourful cast of characters, an improbable number of twists and turns, conspiracy theories in abundance, dialogue that makes you gasp. Even in this age of surveillance, the level of access is astonishing: the camera, it seems, goes everywhere. It follows Avery’s defence attorneys into the Manitowoc County Clerk of Circuit Courts office, where they discover that a vial of his blood appears to have been tampered with, suggesting framing by the police. It records the police interrogation of the intellectually challenged 16-year-old Brendan Dassey, as he stumbles through a series of confessions and retractions, unaccompanied by legal counsel, and then asks when he will be returning to school. “I have a project due in sixth hour.” When the camera is not present, the voice recorder is. We overhear Avery’s girlfriend, Jodi Stachowski, coaching him in marriage proposal over the phone: “Put rose petals on the bed, in the bathtub.” Most heartbreakingly, we eavesdrop on phone conversations between Dassey and his mother, Barb Janda. “I’m really stupid, Mom. I can’t help it,” he says. “You’re not stupid to me,” she replies.
This feeling of omniscience is part of the series’ compulsive allure: the viewer imagines she can see further than any of the story’s players. A perky journalist asks Avery if he would describe Dassey as smart. He hesitates: “Um … not really.” Before our eyes, this is transformed into breaking news, as Len Kachinsky, Dassey’s state-appointed defence attorney, offers his own interpretation: “I think the meaning of the words ‘not very smart’ is reference to possible consequences to Dassey if he testifies against Avery.”
As if this material were not powerful enough, Ricciardi and Demos bring to it many of the techniques of long-form television: the emotive soundtracks, the cliffhanger endings. Set to an arrangement of cello and percussion that evokes Game of Thrones, the opening credits unfold over a sequence of suggestive images: a forlorn car yard under snowfall, faded Avery family photographs, a trailer home, Avery’s father posing with hunting kill, a selection of knives hanging on a wall. Their careful curation is emblematic of the documentarian’s art, but it also speaks to something else. “Right now, murder is hot,” enthuses a young TV current affairs producer in episode four. “We’re trying to beat out the other networks to get that perfect murder story.” You judge her, as intended, but then you have to consider what you yourself are doing. Snacking on salted caramel ice-cream, you are watching a teenage girl break down in court as she realises she may have condemned her cousin to a life in prison. You are watching the slow ruin of people’s lives set to music, packaged as entertainment in a way that can only amplify that ruin. At such moments it feels indefensible.
The series’ defenders would argue that its raison d’être is not entertainment – even as it makes liberal use of these devices – but an exposé of systemic failure. And indeed systemic failure is clear throughout. “No sane lawyer looks forward to presenting an argument to a jury that the police framed his client,” observes one of Avery’s defence attorneys, Dean Strang, and yet copious evidence points to the conclusion that the police framed Avery, or at least bolstered the case against him.
Most harrowing is the plight of Dassey, and, by extension, that of Janda, who vacillates in her belief in her son’s innocence but always remains by his side. While Avery is able to afford top-flight defence attorneys, thanks to a settlement from his civil suit, Dassey is stuck with Len Kachinsky, who grins like a ventriloquist’s dummy while seeming to do little to defend him. Kachinsky delivers him to one of the story’s most lurid characters, investigator Michael O’Kelly, to extract a further confession. “This is truly where the devil resides in comfort,” O’Kelly later emails Kachinsky. “A friend of mine suggested, ‘This is a one-branch family tree. Cut this tree down. We need to end the gene pool here.’” When Janda campaigns for a change in Dassey’s counsel, the action is denied. As she storms out of the courtroom, you feel, viscerally, the entrapment of disadvantage: what is it to be uneducated, and ignorant, and unable to afford proper representation in a system that closes ranks around you. “They said my statements were inconsistent,” Dassey tells her. “What does – uh – ‘inconsistent’ mean?” “I don’t know exactly,” she replies.
Ironically, the documentary presents the media as a further problem. Shortly after Dassey’s interrogation, special prosecutor Ken Kratz calls a televised press conference. He discloses some of the confession’s most sensational content, prefaced by a warning: “I’m gonna ask that if you’re under the age of 15, that you discontinue watching this press conference.” The sanctimonious Kratz, with his soft falsetto of a choirboy gone to seed, assumes the role of the series’ central villain. Strang argues that the prosecution’s cultivation of the media compromises Avery’s right to a fair trial. When Strang requests curative action from the court, Kratz argues that the state will then have to “start this case swimming upstream”. Strang’s response provides the documentary with its strongest theme: “All due respect to counsel, the state is supposed to start every criminal case ‘swimming upstream’. And the strong current against which the state is supposed to be swimming is the presumption of innocence.”
Amid this great parade of human awfulness, Strang and co-counsel Jerry Buting emerge as angels of reason. Clad in cable-knit jumpers and oversize spectacles, Strang is not only the moral compass of the series but also the viewer’s proxy: alongside flights of eloquence, he – like us – is sometimes lost for words. As he watches footage of County Sheriff Ken Petersen suggesting that “it would have been much easier just to kill [Avery than frame him]”, Strang splutters incredulously, “This is insane. This is absolutely insane … You know, where do you start? … It’s, um, it’s fascinating.”
Making a Murderer is indeed fascinating, and poses important questions about the United States’ criminal justice system. Perhaps this justifies the sport the series makes of people’s lives. But there is another level of manipulation here that goes beyond the demands of entertainment.
In an interview with The Wrap, Ricciardi argued, “I would say that our role here was as documentarians. We were not advocates. We’re not part of an adversarial system. We were documenting this case as it was unfolding.” In many ways, the series looks like objective journalism, but is it? Unlike the podcast Serial, or Helen Garner’s true-crime writing, there is no first-person narrator owning up to their subjectivity. But there is an intense subjectivity implicit in any editing process, in every decision of juxtaposition or omission, and to claim otherwise is disingenuous.
Throughout the series, Steven Avery emerges as almost lovable: tubby and diminutive in his striped prison gear, like a Bugs Bunny cartoon gone wrong. It seems inconceivable that the police should be out to get someone so innocuous. And yet, since the series’ release, Ricciardi and Demos have been criticised for withholding a number of key facts about him: that he doused a cat with kerosene before incinerating it; that he phoned Teresa Halbach several times on the day she went missing, deliberately blocking his caller ID. None of this proves his guilt, but it does cast some doubt on the completeness of the picture. As Kathryn Schulz writes in the New Yorker, Ricciardi and Demos “stack the deck to support their case for Avery, and, as a result, wind up mirroring the entity that they are trying to discredit”.
Strang observes that “most of what ails our criminal justice system lies in unwarranted certitude on the part of police officers and prosecutors and defence lawyers and judges and jurors that they are getting it right … Just a tragic lack of humility of everyone who participates in our criminal justice system.” Ricciardi and Demos may have sought to redress this, but the series’ reception only highlights our human intolerance for doubt. On Facebook, Reddit and Twitter, many have found Steven Avery innocent, and they are now pointing the finger at others. In the name of “justice for Steven”, there have been bomb threats to the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Office and even – allegedly – rape threats against Kratz’s daughter. Schulz suggests the series can seem like “highbrow vigilante justice”, and it is hard to see it as an improvement.
Avery has a new attorney, Kathleen Zellner, who is regularly tweeting in his defence and claims Kratz’s “bloodsucking gives vampires a bad name”. She knows how to give good copy, and the circus continues.