How Two Criminal Defense Lawyers View ‘Making a Murderer’
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Photo courtesy of Netflix

Summary: Two criminal defense lawyers on why they watch or don’t watch shows like Netflix’s “Making a Murderer.”

When criminal defense attorneys share their thoughts about the Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” you’ll quickly realize you can’t predict many of their opinions. However, you’ll soon discover they tend to have either very strong or limited interest in watching this type of program. As you review the legal thoughts shared below, see if you can discover new ways to evaluate both the evidence that was presented during the show — and the rest that may have been left out on purpose.


What Makes Steven Avery’s Adult Criminal History So Unique?

Steven Avery was convicted of rape in 1985 and then served 18 years in prison before being exonerated and released in 2005.  Two years later, he was arrested for the murder of young photographer Teresa Halbach and convicted for her death in 2007. In a separate trial, Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, was also convicted for Halbach’s murder. Both men received lifetime sentences, without the possibility of parole.

Avery’s second conviction is even more compelling since “Making a Murderer” includes footage clearly indicating that Dassey was coerced into confessing. Meanwhile, former Wisconsin prosecutor Ken Kratz told TheWrap in an email earlier this month that the producers left out key evidence in the show that points to Avery’s guilt.

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Two Criminal Defense Lawyers Share Their Thoughts

Tim Anderson, a federal criminal defense attorney in New Jersey, told JD Journal that shows like “Making a Murderer” often provide important, teachable moments and allow lawyers to reflect on how certain matters might be handled in a more positive manner. He then specifically addressed the following troubling issues:

1. Eyewitness testimony. “Since so many cases don’t include physical DNA evidence, our criminal justice system is forced to try and fully accommodate a significant amount of witness testimony.” He then noted the problems that unfolded in the initial case after the victim incorrectly claimed Avery had raped her. Anderson said “this is a troubling aspect of our system” that must be better addressed in the near future.

2. The tendency of law enforcement to focus on just one suspect. Anderson was definitely concerned about the way local law enforcement officers seemed determined to overlook what they already knew about the man who they later learned actually committed the rape.

3. The full trial isn’t shown. This can seriously bias and mislead viewers as to what evidence was most important and controlling in the eyes of the court.

4. The presence or absence of money often affects the quality of representation. Noting the rather poor legal “guidance” provided to Brendan Dassey, Anderson says that his charges may have to be dismissed. He then referenced the superior representation clients like O. J. Simpson often obtain simply due to their wealth (at least in regards to Simpson’s murder trial).

5. Other loose ends raised. Among the many other key issues raised by Anderson was the way the attorneys seemed to be attempting to try the Avery and Dassey cases in the media spotlight. He clearly believes that the judge in the second case should have issued a “gag order” to prevent the lawyers from compromising their clients’ case.

Richard Lurye, a Washington D. C. area criminal defense lawyer (and former prosecutor), told JD Journal why he doesn’t usually watch shows like “Making a Murderer.”

1. Concerns about the editing. Like Anderson, Lurye said these types of programs are “notorious” for their editing. He said the filmmakers know that they must “edit the material to attract a large viewership.” This reality can quickly diminish the “reliability of what’s shown.”

2. Lurye worries about our culture’s current attempts to find fault with police and law enforcement activities. Although Lurye says a number of errors are made in some “high-profile” cases, he doesn’t enjoy watching programs that are overly critical of the police.

3. The important role and subtle influence of judges is often overlooked. These professionals control the evidence that reaches the jurors. Programs like this often fail to include adequate footage clearly indicating the role the judges play.

Reasons Why Many of Us Find Shows Like ‘Making a Murder’ So Riveting

While we wait for additional rulings in the case, Dr. David Henderson, who practices in Dallas, told JD Journal in an email why so many people find this type of show so compelling:

“One of the most basic human needs we have is to be known and accepted for who we really are. Shows like this prey upon our deepest fear: to be misunderstood and falsely judged. This is the theme of many a great novel, especially well articulated in Feodor Dostoyevsky’s work, ‘Notes from Underground.’ Resolution comes when the main character achieves the vindication for which he so desperately yearns.

We all have fantasies of standing in court at the bar, making our case and finding acquittal, absolution, leniency or a commuted sentence based on the context of our situation, the motivation behind our actions or the limitations of our humanity. It stands to reason, then, why shows like ‘Making a Murderer’ resonate so profoundly with the watcher, who in turn, lives vicariously through the characters’ triumph or failure to achieve ultimate vindication.”

Elizabeth Smith, J.D., M.A. is a freelance writer who has authored/co-authored two annually updated legal texts in the past and continues to address many challenging news topics in her work.

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