The Netflix exclusive series Making a Murderer, despite being released in December 2015, was one of the most talked about, viewed, and controversial programmes of last year. Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos spent 10 years on the project, which focuses on the 2005 court case against Steven A. Avery. Originally arrested in 1985 on a rape charge, Avery was finally released in 2003–having spent 18 years in prison–when DNA evidence proved that he didn’t commit the crime.
Two years later, after filing a lawsuit against Manitowoc County, and specifically several county officials involved in his arrest, he was again arrested, this time for the murder of Teresa Halbach. Halbach was a photographer who was last seen on the Avery Salvage property after a routine visit to photograph one of the vehicles Avery was selling for Autotrader. Allegations of planted evidence and police corruption surfaced during the trial, as well as video footage of investigators and legal representatives leading an underage witness when Brendan Dassey, Steven’s 16-year-old nephew, was also arrested and tried for the murder of Halbach.
To say that the case is bizarre and outrageous is an understatement: the events unfold in a tense, riveting story that rivals any drama series. Though criticised for its biased depiction – it focuses on Avery and Dassey, with little reference to Halbach, and allegedly omits some of the details associated with the case – the filmmakers do not shy away from Avery’s history of criminal convictions. This includes time spent in prison for animal cruelty when he poured gasoline on his cat and threw it into the fire. The documentary argues that, as horrific as this act was, Avery’s history with the law, including resentment from the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department for his wrongful conviction, should not colour Avery’s trial but does: Avery is made a murderer from a combination of legal corruption and social scapegoating.
If Avery and Dassey are indeed innocent of the murder of Halbach, two men are currently in prison for a crime they did not commit. The anger, shock and intrigue that so many have expressed in reviews and social media reinforces the fact that this is a human rights story exposing judicial corruption. Making a Murderer is necessary viewing, a story that must be told in order for the truth to be revealed. The series is the last in a long line of such documentaries that viewers of Making a Murderer may not be aware of, and we all really should be: the following films have exposed legal corruption, helped to exonerate the wrongfully accused and even saved lives.
The Thin Blue Line
The Thin Blue Line, directed by Errol Morris, details the incredible story of Randall Dale Adams, who was sentenced to death for the murder of Dallas police officer Robert W Wood in 1976. In addition to the dark, unsavory topic, the documentary used unconventional formal elements for the period, such as reconstructed scenes and hours of interview footage, used to highlight the contradictory nature and unreliability of testimonies.
Largely due to the influence of the documentary, Randall was released from death row a year after the film’s distribution; after 12 years in prison this film helped to save an innocent man’s life.
Un coupable ideal / Murder on a Sunday Morning
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Un coupable ideal explores the arrest and trial of Brenton Butler, a 15-year-old boy wrongfully accused of murdering a 65-year-old woman in Florida in 2000. In a similar vein to Making a Murderer, the film closely follows Butler’s defense team as they build their case and the events of the trial unfold in real time. In addition to exploring institutional racism–arguing that Butler was arrested, despite the lack of any evidence, because he is black–the film also exposes the aggressive interrogation techniques employed by the police against a minor, which was also a key element of Brendan Dassey’s defense. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2002.
Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father
Dear Zachary is another example of inadequacy within the legal system. Andrew Bagby was shot to death in Keystone State Park in November 2011. He had just called off a turbulent relationship with his much older colleague, Shirley Turner, who was subsequently arrested and convicted of his murder. During this time, Shirley revealed that she was pregnant with Bagby’s unborn child. This fact influenced her punishment and legal battles ensued between Turner and Bagby’s already heartbroken parents.
Bagby’s close friend, Kurt Kuenne, is a filmmaker and the film was designed to provide Zachary with a lasting legacy of his father. Kuenne’s position creates a completely unique film that highlights the role played by the legal system in further tragic events as they play out in real time. The last thirty minutes or so, especially if viewers go into this film with no prior knowledge, are challenging but there is a touching reminder of friendship and love within the horror and heartbreak, as well as a legal lesson that was unfortunately learned too late.
West of Memphis
West of Memphis, directed by Amy J. Berg, charts the case of the West Memphis Three, teenagers Damien Echols Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley, who were arrested for the murders of three eight-year-old children in 1993. The bodies of the victims, Steve Branch, Christopher Byers and Michael Moore, were found in a ditch, naked and hogtied with their own shoelaces. It was alleged that the teenagers, who were social outcasts, killed the younger boys as part of a Satanic ritual. The film condenses the detail covered in the related Paradise Lost documentaries (1996, 2000 and 2011), directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The case was also dramatised in the 2013 film Devil’s Knot, starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth.
After 18 years in prison, the men were released after Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh provided the financial means for the case and initial trial to be investigated.
The Central Park Five
Noted documentary filmmaker Ken Burns directed The Central Park Five along with his daughter Sarah Burns. In April 1989, Trisha Meili was jogging in New York’s Central Park when she was beaten, raped and sodomised in a brutal attack that left her in a coma for 12 days. Five black juvenile males were convicted of the crime, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana Jr., Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Kharey Wise, despite claiming that their testimonies had been coerced by authorities, prompting local racial tension. In 2002, after spending between 7 to 13 years in prison, the group were sensationally exonerated when the case was reopened and DNA evidence proved that they did not commit the crime.
Working as a paralegal several years later, Sarah Burns was introduced to the case when one of the lawyers in her office was handling a compensation lawsuit on behalf of one the men who was originally convicted. The documentary was intended to highlight this legal case for reparation, which had been in negotiation since 2003. In 2014, aided by the publicity of the film, the group received $41 million.