I wonder when the day will come when I don’t see anything regarding this story pop up every time we get online. Because, even if you haven’t watched it, you know it’s everywhere. Can’t stop thinking about it because we won’t stop talking about it. I don’t know that I have anything new to add. But maybe if I put it all here, I won’t feel the need to go jumping into every facebook/twitter/instagram conversation.
To preface: we watched the entire miniseries over Christmas. I think we tried to “pace ourselves” and watched it over 4 days. Of course, binge-watching something so emotionally charged like that means that by the end of it, you’re really worked up and seeing red everywhere. To the internet!
So we started googling and reading and discussing and fact-checking. And the more time has passed, the more voices I’ve heard, my initial reactions after watching the documentary have slightly modified. Slightly, but modified all the same.
1. A documentary is still a movie. That’s really, really important, because the word “documentary” is applied to both “Super Size Me” and “Fathead.” Two documentaries on the same subject matter reaching diametrically opposing conclusions. And of course, anything Michael Moore has made, which are usually 90% fiction/opinion. I think it’s gotten rapidly worse during my adulthood. Consider the devolution of The History Channel. I’m old enough to remember when this wasn’t a thing:
I don’t have any hard research to back this up, but my guess is that this is due to documentaries (even the TV versions) becoming more targeted at mass consumers than academia. Again, I blame the hack Michael Moore.
All that to say, no matter what documentary we watch (at least, made in the last decade, I’d say), there will always be a bias, there will always be an agenda, and there will always be the intent to present their case in such a way as to stir up our emotions and make us have to share the documentary and talk about it everywhere and find a way to DO SOMETHING. This tactic isn’t a bad thing. It’s like a gun – morally neutral. The degree to which it is good or bad depends entirely on how it is employed.
It’s still important to be an active viewer and keep this in mind. (And I’m not assuming you haven’t done that. But for the sake of saying it, I wanted to say it.)
2. That petition though. I didn’t sign it. For a couple of reasons, but mainly because the idea that a movie (see above) could pressure a politician to reverse a court ruling outside his jurisdiction is uncomfortable to me. I do find it…interesting…that the Obama administration is officially stating they can’t interefere with local jurisdictions, on this particular high-profile case, when they clearly haven’t had a problem blustering into other local crime stories that didn’t legally qualify for federal involvement, or at least federal commentary.
Even within state jurisdiction, pardons are a risky business. Mike Huckabee, for example, was famous for pardoning people who went on to kill again. (at least one person, my memory is fuzzy.) Anyway, to pardon someone who is not clearly innocent is a high risk for the community. And I realize I’m wading into dangerous waters to state that
3. Steven Avery is not clearly innocent. He was ultimately proved innocent of the rape, which he never should have been convicted of in the first place. Agreed. And regarding the murder investigation and trial, there was obviously misconduct on the part of investigators and the prosecution team. Even considering the creative presentation of the documentary, this was blatant. The fact that the same judge adjudicated his trial and his appeals still blows my mind. Do they only have one judge in the whole county? And Brendan Dassey was obviously coerced by the investigators and then totally screwed by his first lawyer. You don’t go to the news and proclaim your client as guilty. You don’t. They both clearly deserved new, fresh trials. None of this makes either one clearly innocent.
I lost sight of that myself, until I started reading some of the stuff written by people who had actually followed the case closer than I had. He still is a creepy dude who set a cat on fire (not by accident), had other genuine run-ins with the law prior to his initial arrest, and apparently was harassing-borderline-stalking Teresa Halbach before she was murdered. By someone. And, well, her body was found literally in his backyard. This doesn’t make him clearly guilty, either.
To me, there’s still plenty of Reasonable Doubt between whether or not Steven and Brendan killed Teresa Halbach. That gap has gotten smaller, but it’s still there. But it’s smaller. Which leads me to my final thought:
4. Even scumbags are constitutionally entitled to a fair trial. Because whoever did this to Teresa Halbach is a scumbag. And neither one of these guys, whether they did it or not, got a fair trial. The jury pool was poisoned. The evidence was tainted. Brendan’s defense was so far from rigorous it was unconscious. (And personally, I feel like the burden of proof against minor tried as adults should be much, much higher, but I guess that violates the concept of equality under the law. But that’s still how I feel.)
This is why I still say that, when it comes down to it, I’d still rather be at the mercy of the American judicial system than any other. Consider that half of the amendments in the Bill of Rights are there to explictly protect the rights of accused Americans in a court of law. The right to a fair trial by jury, the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, the protection against illegal imprisonment, search and seizure; These issues were of the highest priority to our nation’s Founders. So important, that they didn’t leave their codification to the individual states. These are non-negotiable.
This is why it’s so important to stand against any attack on any of our Constitutional Rights. If they can hack away at the Second Amendment and the Fourth Amendment, they can whittle down the Sixth and Seventh. It should give us all the willies that anyone would say, “Sure, the Constitution might say XYZ, but it was written for a different time.” Exactly. The Constitution was written the way it was just so we wouldn’t return to that time.
What happened in this specific case wasn’t an example of the flawed design of the American Justice System. It’s an example of what happens when it was not used the way it was designed. Individuals acted in such a way as to pervert the system for their own ends. (I’ll also add, I’m 100% convinced it’s because they were afraid of letting a murderer go free, not because they just woke up one day and thought, ‘You know what would be fun? Sending two innocent people to prison. I’ll call 15 other people and that’s what we’ll spend the next two years of our lives obsessing over.’) It’s a terrifying sight because there’s always the fear that it could happen to any one of us.
Even if Steven Averey and Brendan Dassey were completely guilty – and they may be – they still deserve lawful trials. I wish they had gotten them. For all our sakes.