5 Important Takeaways from Making a Murderer

If my Facebook feed is any reflection, I spent part of my holiday break like many, many of you - binge watching Making a Murderer. 

For those of you who spent your break in slightly more productive ways, Making a Murderer is Netflix series that tells the true story of Steven Avery, who served 18 years for a rape he didn't commit and then was arrested for a murder two years after being released. 

Similar to the true crime podcast Serial that had viral success last year, Making a Murderer presents the shocking and upsetting reality of our criminal justice system and all its flaws. For those of us privileged enough to rarely interact with that system, the story of Steven Avery is jaw-dropping. 

And yet, Making a Murderer isn't just the story of Steven Avery, any more than Serial was the story of Adnan Syed. These producers didn't just stumble upon the rare miscarriage of justice. These types of stories are not rare and available for anyone willing to scrape the surface.  This series also illustrates several issues with our system that need to be addressed if we ever hope to improve it.

1. Innocent people go to prison all. the. time.

I'll never forget when Serial first came out and I was discussing the case with a close friend. I told her that I believed Adnan was innocent and she responded with surprise, "But he's in prison!" as if prisons only let in the guilty.

The Innocence Project estimates that anywhere between 2.3% - 5% of prisoners have been wrongly convicted. This is no small number considering the U.S. prison population is about 2.2 MILLION people. 

We will never know for sure, but the few studies that have been done estimate that between 2.3% and 5% of all prisoners in the U.S. are innocent (for context, if just 1% of all prisoners are innocent, that would mean that more than 20,000 innocent people are in prison).

More broadly, we know that innocent people are often identified as suspects by law enforcement and that DNA testing often clears them before they go to trial, but that DNA testing is impossible in the vast majority of criminal cases. In approximately 25% of cases where DNA testing was done by the FBI during the course of investigations, suspects were excluded by the testing. That doesn’t mean we believe 25% of convictions are in error, but when coupled with the fact that DNA testing is only possible in 5-10% of all criminal cases, it shows that science cannot always clear innocent suspects, which can result in wrongful convictions.
— The Innocence Project

These numbers are truly terrifying when you begin to think about the death penalty. Since 1973, 144 people have been released from death row due to wrongful conviction. A new study estimates that as many as 1 in 25 sentenced to death are innocent. 

That is terrifying. I cannot fathom the reality of sitting in prison (or death row) for a crime I did not commit. The unfairness and injustice of such a situation is epic in its scope and impact.

2. Reasonable doubt is fundamentally misunderstood. 

The standard of proof to deprive a citizen of their liberty is purposefully set very, very high. Legally, the government (aka the prosecutor) must argue their version of the events so conclusively that a reasonable person would have no reasonable doubt of the accused's guilt. 

This is not the standard to arrest someone, which is probable cause. This is not the standard for a civil suit, which is preponderance of evidence (basically 51% of the evidence). 

This standards mean there is NOany other reasonable explanation. 

And - just to be clear - reasonable doubt is not just for innocent people, as the prosecutor in Making a Murderer says in his closing argument.

This standard - all the other the protections contained within our legal system from Miranda warnings to the right to counsel to the right to an appeal - are for EVERYONE. Our Constitutional rights are inalienable and imparted to us - depending on your belief system - by God or by our status as human beings. 

Even the most heinous criminal is deserving of his or her rights under the law. Reasonable doubt is not a sliding scale of proof depending on the severity of the crime or your innocence. 

I understand that this is neither a popular nor particularly easy truth but - to me - the alternative is so much worse. A society that deprives its citizens of their humanity based on conjecture or assumption or stereotypes is not a society I want for myself or my children.

When we decide - as Making a Murderer convincingly argues that we have - that probable cause turns the accused into the guilty and that a trial is a mere formality, when we erode the meaning of reasonable doubt by deciding it is only for the wealthy, the resourceful, or the well-represented, when we decide that we are willing to sacrifice the liberty of the innocent for the safety of ourselves, then we have gone terribly, terribly astray.

3. The type of evidence we depend on is unreliable and misunderstood.

Steven Avery is wrongfully convicted based on the eyewitness testimony of the rape victim. No one wants to believe that a woman could misidentify someone who raped her and certainly no one wants to accuse someone already traumatized of being wrong. However, it happens all. the. time. In fact, Misidentifications account for 75% of all DNA exonerations. 


Our memories are flawed, especially when we are identifying someone of another race, and we have to accept that. (I HIGHLY recommend the story of Ronald Cotton and Jennifer Thompson-Cannino for those who would like to know more.)

Another form of evidence that is fundamentally misunderstood is the confession.

In Making a Murderer, Avery's 16-year-old nephew confesses to the crime and then recants. At his trial, the prosecutor states plainly, "No one confesses to a crime they didn't commit."

That is simply not true. Police are trained in specialized interrogation techniques that can cause vulnerable people to confess to a crime they didn't commit. A 2010 study found 25% of DNA exonerations since 1989 contained a false confession and stated that “the problem of contamination is epidemic, not episodic.”

It is difficult to image someone confessing to a crime they didn't commit, but it is another difficult reality we have to accept and understand in order to address the abuses within our system. 

4. Prosecutorial and police misconduct is a reality.

Those who dedicate their lives to the very difficult job of law enforcement deserve a certain amount of respect and admiration.

What they do not deserve - and what we have given at our peril - is our total trust. 

Prosecutors and police officers are human beings susceptible to the same mistakes, temptations, and fallibility we all are. The idea that we can never question their motivations or decisions is not only false but dangerous.

Our society has functioned for too long under the assumption that law enforcement officials are the good guys and those on the other side of law enforcement - from the accused to defense attorneys - are the bad guys.

This is simply not the world we live in.

Sometimes police break the law. Sometimes innocent people sit in prison for crimes they did not commit. Sometimes police officers sacrifice everything to keep us safe. Sometimes truly depraved individuals commit heinous crimes.

ALL OF THESE THINGS CAN BE TRUE. Acknowledging the existence of one does not lessen the importance of the other and I would arge we make the job of law enforcement that much harder when we insist on a one-sided story that erodes trust and puts the police on the defensive. 

5. Both sides agree our system is broken.

I have purposefully not done a deep dive into the case of Steven Avery. I believe he is innocent but I don't think that is the real story of Making a Murderer. The series is the story of our broken criminal justice system. A system so broken that it is one of the few (VERY FEW) issues to receive support from both Congressional Democrats and Republicans.

We have to acknowledge this difficult reality. We have to acknowledge that we have been depending on a system that doesn't work. We have to decide to what lengths we are willing to go to make ourselves feel safe and what we are willing to sacrifice. 

What happened to Steven Avery and Brenden Dassey was tragic and I truly hope their story is heard and resolved. However, stopping at their story and not reforming the system would be a true tragedy.

Here's what you can do now: 

Support The Innocence Project

Support the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice

Contact your legislative officials and tell them you support reform.