If you spent the better part of your holiday weekend ignoring your family and skipping meals to finish Netflix's Making a Murderer, you're not alone. The show earned itself an overnight cult following shortly after Netflix dumped the 10-episode documentary series on its server on Dec. 18—just in time for binge season, and it's worth every minute of its 10-hour runtime.
Documentarians Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi spent the better part of a decade editing more than 700 hours of footage and piecing it together to create the narrative presented. The way we as viewers understand it, a Wisconsin man, Steven Avery, with a history of misdemeanor infractions had been wrongfully imprisoned for 18 years for the assault and battery of a local woman. Some two decades later, Avery was exonerated on the basis of new DNA evidence that linked the crime—for which he long maintained his innocence—to another man with a history of sexual violence. Multiple episodes in Murderer suggest that county prosecutors had known they had the wrong man all along, a staggering revelation to say the least.
When Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey were implemented as suspects in murder of Teresa Halbach just two years later—the circumstances around which the series raises a significant number of questions as to the legitimacy of the process—prosecutors doubled down on their previous (and seemingly unfounded) assertion that Avery was a dangerous, possibly even murderous man. Following Avery's conviction of her murder—the details around which are spotty—Manitowoc County Circuit Judge Patrick Willis memorably said, "Despite having the widespread sympathy of the public and the prospects for a significant financial award, you committed the horrible crime that brings you here to be sentenced today. In terms of assessing your danger to society, the evidence forces me to conclude that you are probably the most dangerous individual ever to set foot in this courtroom."
Many of us naively wondered how a criminal court of law could have possibly fucked a man's right to a fair trial not once, but twice. For many, it pulled back the curtain on a fractured and failing system in much the way that other recent true crime documentaries have. But by eliminating the whodunit angle in favor of spotlighting an entire county's ineptitude, we were shown how deep this fuckery can run. It scared the shit out of us, and it should.
Those visceral feelings we caught while watching the series—that disgust-laden pit-in-your-stomach that intensifies with every spoonful of information—isn't exactly novel. True crime's been around for as long as narrative journalism, hence the tired media adage, "If it bleeds, it leads." But the subsequent social media "activism" attempting to right the wrongs (while often nothing more than a clusterfuck of hashtags) is something relatively new. In the way that the series was meant to underline the failures of our criminal justice system, it succeeded beyond measure. And from there, the Internet took the wheel.
Two petitions requesting pardons of Avery and Dassey have cropped up with signatures in the hundreds of thousands. A change.org petition by Michael Seyedian reads, "Steven Avery should be exonerated at once by pardon, and the Manitowoc County officials complicit in his two false imprisonments should be held accountable to the highest extent of the U.S. criminal and civil justice systems." It has been backed by nearly 300,000 people—almost 200,000 of which were added in the last 72 hours. An additional White House petition with 72,000 signatures of its 100,000 goal asks for a presidential pardon. It's worth noting that the Department of Justice clearly states that pardons cannot be granted for state criminal offenses, however the sheer number of people who are throwing their weight behind a pursuit of accountability shouldn't be dismissed.
DA prosecutor and reviled trash man Ken Kratz—who by the way was forced to resign in 2010 after sexually harassing a domestic abuse client—has felt the full force of the court of public opinion. Despite contesting the docuseries' alleged omission of what he claims was key evidence, he's received countless death threats and the Internet has fully shattered the reputation of his private law firm with a steady stream of poor reviews. And while this may not necessarily ensure that he never practices law again, were he my lawyer and this shit hit the fan, I'd certainly be backing away slowly.
The Innocence Project, a legal nonprofit organization committed to exonerating falsely convicted individuals which helped free Avery the first time around, estimates that "between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent (for context, if just 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison)." Those numbers are huge and should absolutely institute the kind of rage incited by Murderer. Since the documentary series aired and caught the collective fury of viewers everywhere, the Innocence Project has been flooded with requests to re-examine Avery's case. A note on its website currently reads, "As you have seen from the series, Making a Murderer, the criminal justice system is far from perfect. Cases like Avery are very complicated. As you will learn through the series, a member of the Innocence Network is currently looking into some aspects of his case."
Subscribers of Serial will remember that the Innocence Project also helped reopen Adnan Syed's case. "The combined efforts of Sarah Koenig and Syed's team of supporters have already revealed many significant new facts that were never presented to the jury, and our investigation is far from complete," Deirdre Enright, head of the Innocence Project Clinic at University of Virginia Law School, said of IP's involvement with the case. And that's important, because we're watching the same occur with Murderer.
Making a Murder has lit a fire under the Internet in ways that Netflix probably couldn't have foreseen (but no doubt was hoping for), particularly given the fact that it's pre-premiere press was slim. The series has sparked yet another class of Internet sleuths attempting to fit together the missing pieces, a phenomenon that's become increasingly common among a populous outraged by the failures of our criminal justice system. But as the Internet hounds pick apart the minute details in hopes of holding guilty parties accountable, will anything change? Is social media rage enough to enact reform of the criminal justice system on a broader scale? Maybe not, but it's certainly effective for blasting incompetent law practitioners who're fucking the system to begin with, and creating a loud enough uproar so that the powers that be are forced to actually to listen.
That means you, Manitowoc County.