... and Justice for All?

During the long winter’s nap of the University of Cincinnati’s winter break wherein “Netflix and chill” ruled the day, in my bloodlust for true crime murder mysteries I came across Making a Murderer.

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click to enlarge 'Making a Murderer'
'Making a Murderer'

During the long winter’s nap of the University of Cincinnati’s winter break wherein “Netflix and chill” ruled the day, in my bloodlust for true crime murder mysteries I came across Making a Murderer. The 10-part documentary is about Steven Avery, a questionably educated Wisconsin man and his clannish, self-segregated family that owns and operates a large salvage yard and lives on a street named after them.

Around their small Manitowoc County, Wis., town they’re often referred to as “that family.” Bad seeds, though no one who dislikes them can quite put a finger on their nebulous disdain for the Averys.

The Averys keep to themselves; they hunt, fish, light bonfires and shoot guns on their property. They look to be hard-working folks. The patriarch dreams of a time when he can move deep into the woods and forage and grow his own food, forever and always out of touch with the outside world.

Steven knows the local sheriff’s department and they know him: He has had multiple charges and stints in county jail dating to his teenage years, but never anything as serious as rape or murder.

A cousin accused him of harassing her with lewd and lascivious sexual acts when she drove by the family’s property, charges Steven denied.

By now you have heard at least a synopsis of Steven’s story; mainstream media — national evening and morning news broadcasts alike — have picked up the tale of Steven’s current life sentence for murder and that tens of thousands of viewers/fans of the series are crying foul on county prosecutors, police and investigators for framing Steven for the murder of Teresa Halbach, a young female freelance photographer. He was allegedly the last person to see her alive.

And now celebrities Mia Farrow and Ricky Gervais are all crushed out on Steven’s story and have taken to social media to call for his release; online petitions have reached the White House begging President Obama to pardon Steven Avery.

In the sometimes-cockamamie American criminal justice system in which the innocent sometimes do go to prison, wasting away decades of their lives, Steven Avery’s case would be painful enough to watch.

However, this is his second go-'round with the same group of law enforcement who’d previously pinned him for a brutally violent rape that evidence later proved he did not commit — after he served 18 years in prison.

Avery was released in 2003.

The logic goes that these men were so humiliated by Avery’s exoneration and by their own grossly illegal conduct, they had to come up with something elaborate and fail-safe to put Avery away for good and thus wash away forever his “new” image in town as a victim, friend to the governor’s office, poster boy for the Wisconsin Innocent Project and soon-to-be recipient of a $43 million lawsuit payout.

They were going to shut down “that family” for good.

Several haunting things resonate with me about Avery’s predicament.

First, during the family’s celebration upon Steven’s release, one of his sisters warned: “Be careful. Watch your back. They’re not through with you yet.”

Of course, her words rang true.

Secondly, I am struck by how this gaggle of country folks, though battered, bitter and humiliated, remained resilient and present during both criminal prosecutions — especially Steven’s bedraggled mother, who also had to contend with the multiple DUI charges of Steven’s girlfriend while he served his second incarceration as the cops trumped up the charges against him. And because Steven’s nearly-mentally disabled teenage nephew Brendan Dassey, who also lived on the Avery compound, was hassled and bullied by cops into confessing a violent part in the photographer’s murder the boy actually knew nothing about, Barbara Tadych (Dassey’s mother, Steven’s sister) was caught dead smack in the middle of a sibling war — waffling between blind rage at the possibility of her brother involving her vulnerable son and sweet patience as she struggled to convince herself of their innocence.

To illustrate just how susceptible to the system the family is, a heartbreaking telephone exchange between the remedial teenager and his mother occurs. She is trying to explain to him he may have hurt himself by changing his story about the attack on Halbach and that police say his inconsistency proves his guilt.

“What does in-con-sis-tent mean?” he asks his mother. “I don’t know,” she answers, frustrated by the whole thing.

But as a black woman observing the brutal mistreatment and police-custody and related deaths of an ever-growing list of black people, I am absolutely shaken by the fact that if a white man minding his own business living in middle America can once and possibly twice be accused of and framed and convicted for crimes he did not commit, then this hellish debacle can happen absolutely to anyone except, perhaps, the insanely wealthy.

This case makes the once-jokish notion that jails are full of the innocent not so funny after all, especially two-thirds of the way through the nearly 11 hours of episodes of Making a Murderer , when filmmakers plod through the minutiae of the second Avery investigation and allow his lawyers to unfold and then demonstrate how several police agencies may have been in cahoots to frame up Steven for Halbach’s murder.Meanwhile, not one police officer looked for or asked questions of the obvious suspects: her ex-boyfriend (who, strangely, led the team of search volunteers), her current boyfriend or anyone else on her call list of clients she photographed the day she went missing.

Very soon after Halbach’s body was found, however, one investigator called another and asked: “Is Avery in custody, though? Do we have him?”

Hesitant, because he knows all departmental calls are recorded, the other investigator nearly whispers: “Not yet.”

This exchange made my flesh crawl.

This is modern horror, the way institutions charged with the opposite outcome throw money, time, intellectual might and personnel behind ruining a citizen’s life, name and reputation.

Making a Murderer renewed my anxiety over having any contact whatsoever with the police and American courts and it made me wonder about my own resolve, will and strength if I am ever thrown in jail for something I did not do.

Many, many times Steven Avery told his mother from a prison phone that he was losing his grasp and that he might not make it, having spent now 28 of his 53 years in prison.She blithely dismissed his comment.But the next time we see her face on camera, the lines etched there say something much different.

CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: [email protected]


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