Says Joe Berlinger: “It shouldn’t be up to the media to correct the mistakes of the criminal justice system, but rather to shine a light on potential abuses”
“Making a Murderer,” the hit Netflix documentary series examining the murder conviction of a man who’d been wrongly convicted once before, is a “watershed moment in the history of this genre,” filmmaker Joe Berlinger, who knows something about the subject, told TheWrap.
Joe Berlinger co-directed a trio of landmark “Paradise Lost” documentaries which helped secure the release of three teenagers wrongfully convicted of murder, known as the “West Memphis 3.” He spoke to TheWrap about the Netflix series and his newest project, “Judgment Day: Prison or Parole?” about flaws in the parole system, which he is making for Investigation Discovery.
“I think ‘Making a Murderer’ is a real watershed moment in the history of this genre,” Berlinger told TheWrap.
“The growing popularity of this kind of television where ‘The Jinx’ can demonstrate the guilt of a murderer who is walking free, or the film ‘Paradise Lost” getting three people out of prison for a crime they didn’t commit, or ‘Making a Murderer’ highlighting a case where someone has been potentially framed for murder, the fact that there is an increased appetite for this kind of work … it just gives me a sense of relief,” Berlinger told TheWrap. “If the growing popularity of these mediums helps shine a light on this problem in the criminal justice system, I’m all for it.”
“Making a Murderer,” which chronicles Steven Avery’s conviction of the murder of Teresa Halbach which he says he didn’t commit, has sparked a raging debate among viewers over the subject’s guilt or innocence. He and his nephew Brendan Dassey were both convicted of a brutal kidnap, rape, torture, stabbing and shooting of Halbach, a young photographer for Autotrader magazine. The prosecutor in the case Ken Kratz has criticized filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos for leaving out critical evidence used in the trial against Avery and Dassey. The filmmakers dispute that this is the case.
Berlinger said viewers and the media should spend less time trying to decide whether Avery is guilty or innocent and instead take the opportunity for authorities to reexamine cases in which people might have been wrongfully convicted.
“I don’t think filmmakers should necessarily take on the responsibility of definitively establishing someone’s guilt or innocence, but rather to highlight the constitutional rights and due processes that have been denied or abused so that the authorities can then come in to take unbiased, deeper look into the case,” he said. “It shouldn’t be up to the media to correct the mistakes of the criminal justice system, but rather to shine a light on potential abuses.”
Berlinger is about to debut his newest project, “Judgment Day: Prison or Parole?” in the spring. The Investigation Discovery series consists of three one-hour episodes, each tackling two cases that explore the troubling nature of the criminal justice system and highly fraught parole hearings. The series, directed and executive produced by Berlinger, takes viewers inside the processes of parole hearings.
“It’s an area that hasn’t been thoroughly explored in the past,” said Berlinger. “Secondly, it’s an area that’s misunderstood in terms of benefits and dangers of parole. It’s a great opportunity to tell a story.”
Berlinger got his idea for “Judgment Day” while he was doing a series for Al Jazeera called “The System with Joe Berlinger.”
“The series looked at all aspects of the criminal justice system from false confessions to mandatory minimum sentencing, but it also looked at the parole system and I thought, parole is a rarely explored but fascinating part of the justice system that would make a good series.”
He said that more than a quarter of a million inmates are eligible for parole each year, and upon release, two thirds of these parolees will commit a crime, giving people a “knee-jerk reaction” to the parole system and prompting many to believe the parole system shouldn’t exist.
“There have been horrible cases where someone has gotten out on parole and he has done something terrible, so a lot of people have a negative view of parole and not all states have parole,” said Berlinger.
Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky co-directed three films that focused on the aftermath of the horrific murder of three children in Arkansas. Authorities quickly focused on three nonconformist teenagers as the perpetrators despite weak evidence. “Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills” came out in 1996, and was followed by “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” in 2000 and “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” in 2011. The three convicted men were released in 2011 in a plea deal.
“Judgment Day: Prison or Parole?” premieres this spring on Investigation Discovery.