A few years ago, “Making a Murderer” took Netflix by storm, probing the depths of reasonable doubt and shedding light on the limits of the criminal justice system.
The 10-episode documentary follows Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who spent nearly two decades in prison for a wrongful conviction of rape and attempted murder.
In a story filled with twists and turns – and in perfect true-crime fashion – Avery got exonerated and released, only to be charged in a new murder case. The victim, Autotrader photographer Teresa Halbach, disappeared under mysterious circumstances after taking pictures of a van at Avery’s salvage yard. Her burnt remains were eventually found on Avery’s property. Avery’s teenaged nephew, Brendan Dassey, confessed to helping his uncle murder her.
Was there reasonable doubt?
Part 1 of the series explores big issues in criminal justice: prosecutorial misconduct, ineffective assistance of counsel, conflicts of interest, evidence tampering and coerced confessions. Although the show has been criticized as being one-sided, leaving out key details that were unfavorable to Avery, its aim was admirable. The first 10 episodes face head-on the question at the foundation of every criminal case: Is there reasonable doubt?
Spoiler alert (for part 1): The juries, however, didn’t think so. Avery was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole. Tried as an adult, 17-year-old Dassey was likewise found guilty and sentenced to life. But Dassey later retracted his confession, arguing that he was coerced. And both are still fighting to overturn their convictions.
Part 2 of the series, released in mid-October, follows these efforts.
The long road to (possible) exoneration
A key player this time around is Kathleen Zellner, Avery’s rock-star defense lawyer who boasts an impressive record of overturning convictions. She uncovers new evidence, strategizes new grounds for challenging existing evidence and even points the finger at new possible suspects.
As is often the case, the postconviction process for both Avery and Dassey has been fraught with setbacks. Avery’s request for a retrial based on newly discovered evidence was denied. Dassey came close to getting released after a federal district court judge ruled in his favor, but the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately upheld his conviction, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review his case.
As Zellner notes, getting a conviction overturned is a marathon, not a sprint. And she appears to be in it for the long game.