‘Making a Murderer’ Is Troubling Reminder of the Failings of Our Democracy

We need cameras in our courtrooms, patrol cars, interrogation rooms. It is the only hope we have of making the people who hold state power accountable

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A lot of us spent our New Year’s weekend binge-watching “Making a Murderer” on Netflix, a way to greet 2016 with a dose of renewed cynicism about our justice system.

The 10 episodes of “Making a Murderer” are a gripping human drama. The drip-drip of watching the wheels of justice grind toward the convictions of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey — despite their alibis and the lack of convincing physical evidence — makes it hard to turn away.

Both Avery and Dassey are serving life sentences for murder, having exhausted all appeal possibilities. Both cases were turned down for consideration by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

So let’s cut to the chase. Almost none of us had heard of Steven Avery two weeks ago. None of us has any stake in the tragedy of Brendan Dassey, convicted of first degree murder based on a forced, confused and clearly false confession with zero physical evidence to back it up.

Except that we all do have a stake. Our democracy is at stake.

If we sit back while the Wisconsin justice system is twisted into this farce of due process, we forfeit the principles on which this country was created. The presumption of innocence (gone), the right to a vigorous defense, the right to counsel that advocates on our behalf , the right to a fair investigation, the standard of reasonable doubt (absent from both verdicts).

Without those things and our other constitutional guarantees, anyone empowered by the weight of the state becomes a menace. We are no longer in a democracy, we are in an Orwellian hall of mirrors that mocks the free society which we arrogantly tout to the world.

This series follows a year in which many of us had our blinders removed by a powerful new technology: video recorders in our cellphones. We watched black men’s lives snuffed out — Walter Scott shot in the back in South Carolina, Laquan McDonald shot in Chicago while lying on the ground, Eric Garner pleading “I can’t breath” in Staten Island, as he was suffocated while officers piled on.

We experienced the shattering of our presumptions that the laws in our democracy apply equally to people of color. They clearly don’t, and not just in the South, not just in rural areas, not just where we don’t live. It’s an epidemic, everywhere.

Avery isn’t black, but the message of his fate is kin spirit to the #BlackLivesMatter movement: #PoorPeopleMatter. It seems increasingly clear that if you are poor, if you are black, if you are Latino — you had better stay out of the way of the state. You are often out of luck in America’s democracy.

This is not the country we want to be. We must commit to living up to the ideals of our democracy in the coming year and beyond. We cannot accept shoddy prosecutors, egocentric judges, cowardly detectives, 1 million black men in prison and how many Steven Averys?

We need cameras in our courtrooms. We need cameras on our patrol cars. We need cameras in interrogation rooms. It is the only hope we have of making accountable the people who hold state power.

Meanwhile, I still have some lingering questions about “Making of a Murderer”:

  • How could prosecutor Ken Kratz say during Steven Avery’s trial that this was a crime committed by “one man,” and then charge Brendan Dassey with the same crime?
  • Why were two phone recordings between Steven Avery and his girlfriend Jodi — recorded by the prison system where she was for a DUI during the hours when Teresa Halbach was supposedly being murdered by Avery — not played for the jury? This is the most clear exculpatory evidence on Avery’s behalf and the jury did not hear it.
  • How could Brendan Dassey be convicted without a single shred of physical evidence to support the elaborate story of kidnapping, torture, stabbing, rape and shooting of Teresa Halbach?
  • How could the prosecution allege in Steven Avery’s trial that Halbach was murdered in his garage — where no blood or DNA was found — and then allege in Brendan Dassey’s trial that she was butchered in his trailer? Regardless if this is legal – and why would it be – doesn’t common sense suggest that prosecutors don’t have valid theories of what actually happened?

I hope to have these questions answered in your comments below.

Let’s be better in 2016.