Making a Murderer: Disturbing real-life tale that has divided a nation

Steven Avery: Thousands of Irish people have signed a petition for his release.

The Netflix series on Steven Avery’s murder conviction has touched a nerve for thousands of Irish people, writes Richard Fitzpatrick

RIGHT now, murder is hot!” booms an American TV anchor from a piece of archival footage about the Steven Avery case. The clip is weaved into the fourth series of Netflix’s true crime documentary series Making a Murderer. She could be talking about the series itself, which has fascinated audiences since its release just before Christmas, and has got everyone from high-powered celebs to your local shopkeeper talking about it.

In 1985, Avery was imprisoned for the brutal sexual assault of a woman near his hometown in Wisconsin. The police got the wrong man. In 2003, he was exonerated based on DNA evidence. His case became a cause célèbre, triggering a criminal justice reform bill bearing his name. Two years later, he was back in prison as the prime suspect for the murder of a 25-year-old woman whose body was found on his property, a family car-salvage yard.

The police, alleged his legal defence team, planted evidence to incriminate him, which included a car key in his bedroom, his blood in her car, and the charred remains of her bones buried outside his trailer. They had motive. They were on the hook, along with the local district attorney’s office, for $36m damages, as part of a civil case Avery was bringing against them.

The series has everything — unexpected twists and turns; shifty police; the disturbing interrogation of Avery’s 16-year-old nephew, a slow learner, who was also imprisoned for his alleged part in the murder; Ken Kratz, the unlikeable prosecution lawyer; and the poignant, shuffling frames of Avery’s elderly parents.

Thousands of Irish people have become fascinated with the case, and over 7,500 of them are among hundreds of thousands worldwide who’ve signed petitions calling for Avery’s release.

Galway crime fiction writer Ken Bruen is one of the people in this country who binge-watched the series. “They lost every single thing, the business they had,” says Bruen.

“They were social lepers, isolated by their neighbours and family. Still they stood by their son. It was so hard. His mother was like one of the old women from Bóthar Mór, stoic in her suffering. She was wonderful. She had no idea what these people, the government and all the rest, were at but she just knew what they were doing was wrong.”

A pair of film school graduates from Columbia University, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, who worked part-time to fund their research, filmed the 10-hour show over 10 years. They stitched their narrative together from 700 hours of interviews, TV news reports, filmed courtroom sittings and interrogation footage.

The series springs from a real-life crime drama well that has recently given us HBO’s The Jinx and the addictive This American Life podcast Serial, and stretches back to Errol Morris’s landmark 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line.

“Making a Murderer has touched a nerve in the public consciousness,” says Bruen, who was wrongly imprisoned in Brazil for a few months in the 1970s. “The kinetic part of our memory in Ireland can relate to Wisconsin because it’s such an agricultural, rural area, and how easy it is to destroy the poor. The poor never get a fair shake.

“For Irish people, when you see what the banks did, what the Church did, what they’re doing with the disability bills. OJ Simpson walked. Robert Durst walked. And then you get this poor guy Steve Avery and twice he’s sentenced to life.

“The first thing that happens when you’re watching it is you think: thank God that isn’t happening to me. Once a person is accused, you can never un-ring that bell. It’s there forever.

“The other part is that you’re trying to decide is he guilty. After I had watched it, I thought ‘miscarriage of justice’, but it’s particularly interesting to talk to people who think he was innocent and then to people who are convinced he was guilty.”

Critics of the show argue crucial facts were omitted from the TV series to heighten viewers’ indignation.

Either way, it’s a story that looks set to run for some time yet.

Making a Murderer is on Netflix


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