(This post contains spoilers.)
Netflix’s new documentary Making a Murderer highlights systemic issues in the justice system. It shows that class, education, and intelligence play a pivotal and prejudicial role in the determination of a dispute through the story of Steven Avery.
Steven Avery was convicted of raping Penny Bernstein around 1985. For 18 years he proclaimed his innocence. At trial, his family members testified. They accounted for every minute of his whereabouts during the rape of Penny Bernstein. However, the testimony of Penny Bernstein, wherein she pointed the finger at Steven Avery, held the day. Penny was everything Avery was not. She was well groomed, articulate, smart, educated, and wealthy. This made her a more believable witness than Avery and his family. However, in 2003, DNA evidence exonerated Avery, and he was released from prison.
Upon release from prison Avery brought a civil suit against the State relating to his wrongful imprisonment, seeking $36 million. In October 2005, key State witnesses were deposed, and damning evidence against State officials came out.
A few weeks later in November 2005, a woman named Teresa Halbach is found dead. The last place she was known to be alive was on Avery’s property. Avery and his nephew are convicted of her murder. Again Avery proclaims his innocence.
In March 2006, Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey is arrested. He is 16 years old, developmentally delayed, and interrogated without counsel present. He confesses to the murder of Teresa Halbach, stating that he and his uncle raped and killed her.
Following his arrest, Brendan Dassey is appointed counsel. His counsel allows him for the second time to be interrogated in the absence of counsel, a damning event considering that he has an IQ of 70 and is very open to suggestion. His confessions in the absence of counsel are used against him at his trial.
Avery and Dassey are tried separately. The prosecutors do not subpoena Brendan Dassey to testify against his uncle probably because he would have made a terrible witness. His stories are internally inconsistent. They are also inconsistent with the extrinsic evidence.
By placing the spotlight on a justice system that condemns the impoverished, Netflix brings attention to the need for reform. Unfortunately, in Ontario (as I am sure in many other jurisdictions), the court system accounts for only a few percent of the overall state’s budget. But, proper funding is needed to ensure that people have true access to justice, including competent legal aid counsel.
“An open court system, animated by strong constitutional and rule of law values, plays a key role in realizing a democracy… [the justice system] facilitates democracy’s ability to ‘accommodate cultural and group identities’.” (Trevor Farrow, Civil Justice, Privatization, and Democracy)
If the public views the justice system as corrupt, unresponsive, and illegitimate, we face a true democratic deficit.