Like millions of others, I have spent a good chunk of time since the turn of the year gripped by Netflix’s devourable documentary series Making a Murderer. This is one of those rare television shows that has transcended both its format and its genre to become the source of many water-cooler moments, heated debates and insane theories. Making a Murderer has achieved this because it is incredibly well put together and - more importantly in my opinion - because freedom is an intrinsically interesting concept to us as human beings. After all, it is only a nascent development that the overwhelming majority of people aren’t born in to a life of serfdom (sadly many still are) and that in itself makes the topic of examining how fragile our freedom can be appealing to explore.
On a superficial level, the documentary is about the case against Steven Avery. That much is obvious: he is, for lack of a better word in this instance, our protagonist. The documentary-makers (Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos) have skilfully weaved a story of innocence, redemption and corruption, with a Kafkaesque conclusion: after all, if it could happen to Steven, why couldn’t it happen to us? Those who criticise the documentary for being one-sided are forgetting that it is, in essence, an entertainment piece, and also seem to have missed the point that it isn’t really about Steven at all.
The real story is about the flaws in the American justice system: how a small town police force with a grudge can get a man imprisoned for 18 years, and how they can seemingly manage to do it again, even after they had been caught out on their buffoonery. Whilst Hanlon’s Razor is a good concept to usually go by, it appears that malice is the driver here.
With all of that being said, we don’t actually know who killed Teresa Halbach. The documentary was incredibly one-sided (as it was telling a story, not presenting an objective case) and evidence that was left out of the documentary (and the court case) can be used to further indict Steven, including apparent plans to build a torture chamber (revealed to another prisoner during his stint for Rape and Attempted Murder). There was also the startling revelation by Steven’s ex-fiance Jodi Stachowski that he had said “all bitches owe [him] because the one that sent [him] to prison the first time and that [he] could do whatever [he] wanted.” Of course, these are hardly pieces of evidence that obviously point to a guilty verdict, but if Steven is guilty, the name of the documentary gains a whole new level of relevance.
We know very little about the murder of Teresa Halbach. We do know that Avery spent eighteen years of his life in prison for a crime that he didn’t commit. The mental toll that would take is enough to drastically change a person, let alone when the eighteen years were spent in the much maligned American prison system. The quote by Stachowski is fairly telling (if true): is it possible that the resentment that Steven felt after having so much of his life taken away from him manifested itself as a desire to hurt, to maim and to eventually kill? America has one of the highest reoffending rates for criminals in the Western world and that is usually put down to a lack of provision for those who are released in to the outside world and a lack of rehabilitative programs within the prison system. Whilst these are certainly significant drivers of reoffending rates, the psychological impact of having been incarcerated also undoubtedly plays a large part.
Steven Avery did have a criminal history, but he had never raped or murdered anyone. He had spent a large chunk of his life in prison for a crime he did not commit, something that no amount of money could really fix. The deep-seated emotional damage of being incarcerated for something that he didn’t do undoubtedly would have led to anger and resentment; feelings that can bubble up inside of you until they burst at any given moment. Was Teresa a secondary victim of a broken prison system, that ends up contributing to more crimes and criminal behaviour than it stops? Of course, if Steven did do it, a broken system doesn’t absolve him of the guilt. However, if he did, then the role of an unfair system that - seemingly - arbitrarily decides guilt and enforces punishment at any costs should be examined. Over three quarters of American criminals reoffend, but Steven Avery’s original brush with the prison system could have made him a murderer.