When the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer debuted in 2015, I experienced an immense amount of rage while watching it, and then even more rage when I realized how one-sided the documentary was, leaving out key details about Steven Avery’s case in order to arouse our anger. I spent months following all the Reddit threads, keeping myself updated on the new developments, and reading actual books about the case, determined to know every scrap of information about the cases for and against Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey.
It’s 2018 now, and I don’t have a lot of rage leftover to spare, so the ten-episode second season of Making a Murdererer inspired little more than an indifferent shrug. It doesn’t help that much of what is documented in season two by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos has already been reported in the news, or investigated on Reddit. We already know how this ends. Brendan Dassey and Steven Avery are still in prison. For Steven Avery, that’s not likely to ever change. Brendan Dassey is eligible for parole in 2048. That’s probably when he will get out.
Season 2 of Making a Murderer dives into those Reddit fringes, and in doing so, takes that communal investigatory spirit away from the online community by treading on our territory. To be fair, season 2 didn’t have much of a choice. Steven Avery had lost in every conventional way, so he fired his lawyers Dean Strang and Jerome Buting and cast them as incompetent fools in spite of how capable they were. In their stead, Avery hires Kathleen Zellner, who is incredibly good at her job — she has gotten several wrongfully convicted folks exonerated — but as confident as she is in Making a Murderer, she has little to work with aside from the stuff of online conspiracy theories.
Season 2 is mired in blood-spatter analysis, forensics, and alternative theories. The problem is, the circumstantial case against Steven Avery is massive and the best Zellner can do is spend 10 episodes poking little holes in the pieces of evidence, calling in forensic experts and casting suspicion on others. With each A-HA!, Zellner acts as though the case against Avery has completely fallen apart. The problem, as she states from the outset, is that the only way she can win is to prove that someone else murdered Teresa Halbach and while she capably suggests that this guy might have been here at this time, or that guy might have had a motive, or some other guy might have lied, she can’t come up with a case against any one person that’s more convincing than the case against Steven Avery. She’s trying to replace Occam’s razor with Jeremy Bearimy.
The other major problem from the standpoint of the documentary is that is ridiculously one-sided. Zellner presents all this evidence, and all of her experts, but the only rebuttal that’s ever offered is Teresa Halbach’s emotional case for closure. Zellner presents blood-spatter and ballistics experts, but the only rebuttal is usually some Halbach family member who says, “We just want justice for Teresa. We want closure.” I would very much have liked to have seen an opposing blood-spatter analyst or ballistics expert who could have offered any take other than the one that Kathleen Zellner was paying for. There’s never any pushback, so when Avery’s appeals are denied, the viewer is supposed to get angry and outraged given what we know about Avery’s case from Zellner, even though we’re given very little on the specifics of why the appeals were denied. “There was nothing I could do,” Zellner argues. “They made up their minds about this case before I’d even written the appeal.”
To be sure, any alternate theory would have required that the real killer had been working with the police to frame Avery, and that the police played a game of 4-dimensional chess to pull it off. No offense, but no one in Wisconsin is as smart as Zellner makes the police out to be in this case. I’m not suggesting that a few of the police officers weren’t evil enough to want to frame Avery, but I am suggesting that no one could have orchestrated something as elaborate as what Avery and Zellner accuse them of.
In addition to pulling off a frame-up job that not even David Mamet could write, it also would have meant that Brendan Dassey’s confession was a lie. The Dassey case is far more interesting in season two of Making a Murderer because it’s not an evidentiary case. It’s a legal one. The only evidence the state has against Brendan Dassey is his confession, and so the question comes down to a legal one: Was the confession coerced?
Some of you may recall that Dassey’s case was actually tossed on appeal in 2017 and that Dassey was hours away from being released until the state decided to appeal the ruling and the 7th Circuit overturned. This was a legal case, though, and different judges come down with different interpretations of the law. I personally would have thrown out Dassey’s confession, because even though I believe Dassey was telling the truth, it was clearly coerced from a minor with limited intelligence by overly aggressive police officers asking leading questions. I also believe that Avery — who had been emotionally and sexually abusing Dassey for years — manipulated Dassey into helping him murder Halbach, but season two doesn’t really even pick up on that thread, because it would have meant admitting that Avery murdered Halbach. However, I not only believe that Dassey’s confession should have been tossed out, but even if he had been convicted without it, there were a number of mitigating factors that should have led to a reduced sentence.
The case against Dassey has been all or nothing since the beginning. It was either get his confession tossed, or he’d serve a life sentence. I think that Dassey would have been much better served by cooperating with the state in exchange for a reduced sentence. But again, Avery and his family bullied Dassey out of that possibility during the trial stage and I think his lawyers oversold their ability to keep the confession out.
But again, I’m getting lost in the specifics of the case, and this is a review of a documentary series. The series, however, is not that compelling this time around — it gets lost in mundane details and spends a great deal of time focused on Avery’s ailing parents, both as a way to humanize Avery (a murderer with a history of domestic violence and sexual assault) and in what appears to be a gambit that one or both of Avery’s parents would die and the directors would have a better ending. That doesn’t happen because Avery’s parents are fueled by spite and are determined to live long enough to see Steven released. That’s not going to happen, either. All of the appeals at this point have been exhausted, so unless Zellner finds some significant new evidence (rather than alternative theories about old evidence), there’s unlikely to be a season three.
Header Image Source: Netflix