Netflix will be premiering a new documentary series tomorrow called Making a Murderer. It follows the pattern set by the HBO documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which followed the accused murderer until he confessed on HBO’s cameras and was jailed. Making a Murderer goes a step further, the filmmakers have been following their subject for ten years and the murderer in the documentary is not the worse figure in the series, that I know of, but I’ve only seen the first four episodes.
I’m going to use a word I’ve never used in a review before, bold. This doc was ten years in the making and the minutiae of details into the crimes and conspiracies that this series offers are a treasure to obsessives. I’d written before that I was afraid for the future of journalism in the face of trending celebrity news and the aggregate community, but with series like this and HBO’s Vice, I have a renewed hope for the future of reporting. Long form documentaries like this will reinvigorate the entire industry against the short attention span habits that immediate access to news on the internet will foster.
The series, directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, spans over 30 years. It is about Steven Avery, who was convicted of a rape and assault that DNA evidence proved he didn’t commit. But that evidence didn’t make it to court for over a decade and he wound up spending 18 years in prison. Shortly after getting out, and in the middle of a court battle to expose corruption in the Sheriff’s department, he got popped on a murder rap. Coincidence or conspiracy? The jury’s still out.
The Avery family was town outcasts. A couple steps further removed from the community than the Glostners on the TV series The Middle. The family was tight-knit and lived outside the town. They ran a scrap metal business. The kids grew up playing in the rows between the cars that they were scrapping. Their backyard barbecues rocked under the music of abandoned car radios. The town people didn’t like them, looked down their noses on them. They even denigrated auto salvaging as a vocation. I happen to be wearing a City Scrap Metal sweat shirt while I write this and I can picture the kids growing up among the leftovers and having a blast.
Avery wasn’t a saint. He had a burglary record by the time he was 18, when he and some friends broke into a bar and stole some beer as a goof. Avery spent 10 months in prison. When he was 20, he went to prison for animal cruelty after he and a friend doused a cat with gas and basically played catch with it over an open fire. The cat burned to death. He was also accused of assaulting his cousin after he ran her off the road and was accused of jerking off on the hood of her car. It comes out that Avery was the victim of repercussions and past grievances he probably wasn’t even aware existed. But that was just preface to the railroading he took at the hands of Manitowoc County Sheriff Thomas Kocourek and DA Denis Vogel.
One of the lawyers working for Avery says his arrest and the cover-up that followed it was “as close to a conspiracy of silence as [he} had ever seen.” The series shows that the entire investigation was a targeted attack. Composite drawings were copied from Avery’s arrest picture, the victim was surreptitiously influence and there was even a known rapist who fit the original description that law enforcement ignored, even after it was thrown in their faces by another jurisdiction.
The best part of the series is the footage of the accusing witnesses and law enforcement personnel crumbling under questioning. We have the cops, the deputies, the prosecutors and the composite artists having to backtrack on everything they’d said in the initial depositions. It’s fun to watch then squirm as the lawyer turn their words around. They all have bad memories, when it suits them.
The harsh courtroom lights and the unforgiving video footage turn the prosecuting force into a rogue’s gallery of nightmare figures. Attorneys Stephen Glynn and Walter Kelly from The Wisconsin Innocence Project got Avery exonerated of the rape charge and filed a $36 million federal lawsuit to prevent future wrongful convictions. The case against the cops looked solid, but on Halloween, 2005, Auto Trader Magazine photographer Teresa Halbach went out to Avery Auto Salvage to take pictures of a maroon Plymouth Voyager minivan. She was never seen again. On November 11, 2005, Avery was charged with her murder. Avery said he was being railroaded again.
It certainly looks like it. The cold unflinching lens of the sheriff’s office video surveillance shows a squad intent of bringing a specific man to justice. At one point, the investigators see a letter that Avery got from a group of fellow exonerated prisoners and laugh, saying that would be one meeting he was going to miss. That was before they found anything to charge him. At another point, the team finds a closet full of footwear in a closet and say, into their own camera, “We should take all those shoes in case there are any unsolved burglaries that have impressions.” This is damning stuff. And it keeps getting worse. These officers want to get Avery for something, anything.
I can’t recommend this strongly enough. This isn’t just for fans of documentaries and people who never turn off The History Channel. This is for fans of Law and Order, every cop procedural and even fans of Fargo, maybe especially Fargo because it takes place in the same basic area, with all the same accents and frozen backroads. Every episode closes on the opening of a new chapter. Don’t take my word for it, watch that first chapter here, for free, on YouTube and please feel free to agree in the comments below. If you don’t agree, that’s all right. Just don’t call the sheriff on me.