Lessons from Making a Murderer

[Warning: contains spoilers.]

The documentary series Making a Murderer is making the rounds in the media right now after being released in mid-December. I watched it all over just a few days and recommend it highly. Here are some thoughts about its implications.

[Warning: contains spoilers.]

1. Part of the show’s message is that Avery is probably innocent. Another part is that he was not given a fair trial, nor was his nephew. In the nephew’s case it seems very clear that his confession was manipulated and should be thrown out. As far as Avery goes, the series presents him as innocent but a quick search around the internet will give some reasons to think he was not. I don’t know, but police and prosecutors didn’t appear to act fairly. On balance it seems to me the reasonable doubt criterion was satisfied.

More broadly, beyond this case, police and prosecutors have powers—both de jure and de facto—that would blow the average citizen’s mind to find out. Regardless of Avery’s guilt or innocence I’m glad to see the presentation of what the state’s side of the legal system is capable of. The public may think it’s a good thing on net, but they need to know what kind of tool it is. It can be used for good purposes, yes, but there’s no guarantee of that. People know this abstractly, but the concrete portrayal in the series does the Lord’s work. (Regrettably, the Annie Dookhan case had very little impact.)

How often are situations like this happening all over the country? Probably every day. One of the things I thought as I watched was how taxing being a good judge must be. As a judge you inevitably preside over and influence false positives and false negatives, and beyond knowing these are possible there is really no way to know which is which in any case. My subjective impression is that most judges tend to side with the state more or less automatically, sacrificing quality for comfort.

2. What the purpose of law enforcement? Really the question is what are the purposes of law enforcement? (Here I take the broadest view of law enforcement systems, including those in societies that don’t/didn’t have dedicated state apparatus for it e.g. medieval Iceland, pre-contact American Indian groups, etc.) One of the purposes is to keep order. Societies that are too disordered don’t allow for human flourishing. Another purpose is to set the public’s mind at ease. In general, people will tolerate quite a few questionable cases if they think the system overall is working (from their perspective; if you’re on the receiving end of a questionable case you don’t feel that way). While I don’t like it I can see why police and prosecutors would zero in on suspects they think they can convict at the expense of exploring other less certain investigative paths. This is why protections for the accused are so important and why Brendan Dassey’s manipulated confession was so heinous.1 If people can be punished for crimes they didn’t commit, i.e. if their choices and their life outcomes are severely disconnected by non-random events, we are back to the disordered society.

3. Imagine the details of this case being substantially the same, only in Mississippi and with the accused being black. Now go back to the case as it happened. What are the essential components of both stories? So I’m not misunderstood, I don’t doubt racism influences the legal system. What I’m saying is there is more than one troubling factor at play. There is only so much social attention to devote to the list of social problems, and society may prefer to focus on racism inside and outside of the legal system more than other problems within the legal system, but tradeoffs always exist.

1. How many of the people who are outraged about this case also think lower evidentiary standards for college rape tribunals are a good idea?


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