A new opinion piece: ‘Injustice porn’ like Making a Murder and Serial celebrates men who kill and abuse women
If you’ve watched the new Netflix series Making a Murderer, you’re probably left wondering who killed Teresa Halbach and why. The 10-part documentary makes a very convincing case that the local police planted evidence and provides a strong motive for why they might have done such a thing.
The filmmakers don’t, however, try to make the case that the police actually killed Teresa. Instead they do something highly unethical and cast suspicion on her brother, her ex-boyfriend and her roommate.
Almost every time Mike Halbach, the brother of the victim and the family spokesman, comes on the scene, he’s made to say something that’s just been carefully debunked for the audience. The camera stays focused right on Halbach to let it sink in just how wrong he is. From his very first quote, about how the process of grieving his sister might take days (yes, days), the directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos never miss an opportunity to make him look bad. Halbach doesn’t get so much as one sympathetic quote. The only thing the filmmakers don’t do is play spooky music whenever he appears.
They also make Teresa’s ex-boyfriend look terrible on the witness stand, suggesting he hacked into her voicemail for nefarious reasons. Ditto the roommate who helped out the ex-BF.
Ricciardi and Demos are good at casting doubt and the well-primed audience got their message loud and clear. The internet is now chockablock with justice warriors demanding Teresa’s brother’s head and spreading rumours about her ex-boyfriend and roommate. But there’s a problem and it’s a big one — in the eight years since Steven Avery’s trial ended, the filmmakers don’t appear to have followed up to see if their suspicions were actually merited. Based on their final product, they either didn’t bother to look or turned up zero.
In other words, they made Teresa Halbach’s brother, her ex-boyfriend and her roommate look bad without having a single scrap of evidence against them. They appear to have provoked a mob for nothing more than narrative tension, which is especially ironic in a documentary about the dangers of witch hunts.
What’s more, the Making a Murderer team did all this without mentioning that none of these three men were included on any list of alternative suspects. All we hear is that Avery’s original defence team was prevented from discussing other possible suspects in court. The filmmakers don’t tell us that those suspects were all related to the Avery clan and the salvage yard and that they included Steven Avery’s brothers, Earl Avery and Charles Avery, his brother-in law Scott Tadych, his nephew Bobby Dassey and — wait for it — Brendan Dassey.
Yes, you read that correctly. All the while Making a Murderer is building a case that the prosecution of Brendan Dassey as a murderer alongside his uncle is a gross miscarriage of justice, they neglected to acknowledge that taht Avery’s very competent defence team was also prepared to throw Brendan under the bus. Turns out real life is way more complicated than even a 10-hour documentary.
The problem for the filmmakers is the lawyers were probably right. If Steven Avery didn’t kill Teresa Halbach, it was likely one or more of the people on their list. That’s not as good a story as leaving it up in the air and implying the cops or the victim’s brother or her ex-BF and the roommate did it. But if you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense that the murderer was connected to the Avery clan.
It explains why no one ever saw the victim again after her stop at the salvage yard, why her cremains were found on the property and why there were multiple calls to her cell phone from Steven Avery’s phone, including calls using *67 to block his ID. As the appeal defence lawyers’ documentation shows, the Avery clan had a long history of violence against women. It’s not unthinkable that one of them might have tried to lure and sexually assault an attractive young photographer. And there’s no reason they couldn’t have done this with Steven Avery’s phone.
Imagine this scenario: One or more of the extended family members got rough with Theresa and ended up murdering her. If the cops hadn’t come a calling, they could have used her murder as a way to blackmail Steven Avery out of some of the multi-million dollar settlement he was about to receive for his false rape conviction. If the cops did start poking around, the real murderers could accuse, even frame, Steven.
Needless to say the cops had a much stronger motive to pin the murder on Steven than they did to go after the other Averys. If Steven was the murderer, the county’s settlement payment problems vanished and their reputations were well on the way to repair. If it was just another Avery or Avery in-law, they still had the settlement and reputation problems.
The documentary makes a convincing case the police helped things along by planting evidence, especially the key. As for the car, that could have been the police or the actual murderers. Steven Avery could have been in on it or oblivious.
Either way, however, having an Avery or Avery-in-law as the culprit puts up some narrative obstacles for the filmmakers. Ma and Pa Avery are portrayed lovingly as salt of the earth types. They’re never asked how they managed to raise three sons with such a long and documented history of violence. And the directors gloss right over the well known fact that before his wrongful rape conviction, Steven Avery doused a cat in oil and threw it on a fire.
Such are the demands, however, of creating a wrongfully convicted protagonist the public will flock to support. It’s far more difficult to be sympathetic to Steven and Ma and Pa Avery, if it was their own dysfunctional brood framing up Steven and Brendan alongside the cops. It doesn’t quite reach the required outrage levels if the family did it. Much better to be vague so that the public can go to town on the police or the victim’s brother or a mysterious German man.
Not to mention that if the filmmakers had decided one of the brothers, nephews or brother-in-law likely did it, Ma and Pa might have pulled right out of the multi-year film project and left the directors empty handed. A Shakespearian or Faulkneresque tale of a dysfunctional and dangerous family is of no use to anyone if you don’t have the legal rights to tell it.