Note: This post contains “spoilers” about the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer. If you don’t wish to know these details yet, you should watch the documentary and then come back and read this post.
Netflix recently released the documentary Making a Murderer, which centers on the criminal accusations made against Steven Avery of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. Here is a basic timeline:
- In 1985, Steven Avery is accused of rape and found guilty. He serves 18 years—all the while maintaining his innocence. Throughout the 18 years, there seems to be reasonable evidence (including a confession from the actual rapist) that Steven is not guilty, but the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department didn’t follow the right protocols and never followed up on these revelations.
- Finally, in 2003, new DNA evidence proves that Steven is indeed innocent, and he is released.
- In 2004, Steven’s attorney files a lawsuit for $36 million against the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department.
- In 2005, Teresa Halbach goes missing. The last place she was seen was at Steven Avery’s residence. Steven Avery is arrested.
- In 2007, Steven Avery is found guilty of homicide. Again, Steven maintains all along that he is innocent. Again, there seems to be reasonable evidence suggesting that the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department framed Steven in an effort to avoid paying the settlement and restore their reputation.
You can view a full timeline here.
We’ll never truly know what happened. There is a lot of speculation and theories, and I highly suggest you read the interesting conversations going on on Reddit. Personally, I am inclined to believe that Avery is innocent, and I want to share why.
My justification has more to do with the ethics of telling “true” stories. Are documentaries “true” accounts? Most documentaries reveal a bias; does that mean they should be discounted?
The report “Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work” shares that there is no established set of ethical standards for documentarians. Documentarians are not journalists, who are held to a Code of Ethics. Instead, ethical decisions are made on an “ad hoc” basis—up to the documentarians’ discretion. And ethical challenges are a daily occurrence: Documentarians have competing responsibilities to their subjects (what/who is being filmed) and their viewers. These responsibilities are often further complicated by the limitations of low budgets, legal restrictions, and other practicalities.
The report states, “Many documentary filmmakers work with people whom they have chosen and typically see themselves as stewards of the subjects’ stories.” They have a general “do no harm” rule. However, documentarians’ loyalty to their subjects is often in conflict with their responsibility to viewers: “to deliver accurate and honestly told stories.” Often, that obligation to the “higher truth” wins over the obligation to show the subjects in a favorable light. It also means that documentarians sometimes take liberties with editing, manipulating “facts,” etc.—as long as the “higher truth” or message is still conveyed. The goal is “communicating the important themes, processes, or messages within the (required) entertaining narrative frame, while still permitting the necessary distortions to fit within that frame and the flexibility to deal with production exigencies.”
This documentary has raised a maelstrom online. People are shocked and grieved by the account of how Steven and his nephew Brendan Dassey are taken advantage of repeatedly and manipulated by the justice system. Obviously, many cast suspicion on the documentary itself, saying that because the telling of the story is biased, it shouldn’t be believed.
The documentary has been in the making for over 10 years, following the case since 2005. In this interview, the filmmakers share that they didn’t have an opinion or bias when they first started filming. Their question was: “Could somebody who had those motivations possibly do something like this? Or did somebody trying to change the system see the system come back down on top of them? Either way, there was a story.”
The filmmakers also state that they really didn’t have to manipulate facts for the sake of “drama and suspense”:
“From the research we did, through the final edit, in terms of the material to work with, it was almost an embarrassment of riches. There was no need to have to actually construct anything: It’s a very interesting world, there’s a pretty broad cast of characters, and we applied our own narrative filmmaking techniques to ensure we were able to show the organic arcs of all these people as they were experiencing this story.”
In another interview, the filmmakers state that they tried to interview the prosecution team and the Halbach family to get their side of the story. Those parties declined involvement in the film. The Avery family, on the other hand, granted the filmmakers as much information as they wanted.
Here is my opinion.
I have no doubt that some artistic license was used. I’m sure there are facts we don’t know. Some of those may be facts that the filmmakers withheld purposefully; others may be facts that they themselves didn’t know, because the prosecution and other parties chose not to reveal them. I hope that the absence of these facts doesn’t damage the “higher truth” of the film.
I also agree that there is a clear bias throughout the documentary. Despite what was stated in this interview, I think the storytelling leads the reader to only one conclusion: that Steven Avery is innocent.
But I don’t think that that is necessarily a bad thing.
As Steven Avery’s defense attorney Dean Strang comments in the documentary, the accused have the right to a presumption of innocence. That’s an American value: Innocent until proven guilty. Regardless of whether the judge, the jury, the prosecution, or any other parties honored that right for Steven, we the viewers of this documentary can still honor that right.
We can also give the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt. As they stated above, when they began filming, they had no motive to believe Steven was innocent any more than they did to believe he was guilty. Either way, they were going to get a good story.
So, if we presume that Steven is innocent, and we acknowledge that the filmmakers had no motivation to twist the story one way or the other, then I believe we can trust the film.
There’s one more thing. All of us have a moral obligation to uphold truth and honesty, to right injustices when we see them. That means sometimes it looks like we’re sharing an opinion, making a judgment call. It may mean that we don’t just state facts and let others draw their own conclusions; in those cases, we should present what we know to be true, even if it looks like our opinion. If, in the 10 years that the filmmakers spent working on this documentary, they were persuaded that Steven is innocent, then the filmmakers did nothing wrong in presenting a “biased” account.
If Steven Avery is innocent, then the only ethical way to tell the story is exactly as it’s been told.