Unmaking a Murderer

What would Sheffield’s Miscarriages of Justice Review Centre do if we were to agree to review the cases of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, the subjects of Netflix’s ten episode documentary, Making a Murderer?

Netflix doesn’t release viewing figures, but the series released on 18 December 2015 has attracted massive attention not just in the US, but in the UK, with the effect of bringing the enduring problem of miscarriage of justice to public attention. A petition demanding a pardon for Avery has attracted more than 380,000 signatures.

Everyone should watch the series. Beginning with the kind of wrongful conviction story that’s become all too common in the US, in which Avery’s previous conviction for rape in 1985 was overturned 18 years later after developments in DNA testing led to fresh evidence which exonerated him, this story then moves into a different league.

Just as Avery’s major damages claim against the police was about to be heard in court, he was arrested for the murder of a photographer who had visited his car salvage business to get a picture of a van he had for sale. Then police arrested Dassey, Avery’s nephew, who visited him around the time the victim disappeared. Dassey, then aged 16, a boy of low intelligence who was subservient to anyone in authority. In a series of interviews which are astonishing, and distressing to anyone familiar with UK police interviewing standards and the safeguards for suspects which are generally respected in this country, Dassey was bullied and coerced to making completely unbelievable admissions of his participation with Avery in the imprisonment, rape, torture and murder of Teresa Halbach. The obtaining of these false admissions was facilitated by an agent employed by Dassey’s own lawyer, a public defender. Only in America…

All this was recorded by the police and, along with the video recordings of the trials, it makes up the core of this series and turns it into riveting viewing. I’ve helped to review many miscarriage of justice cases and so consider myself hardened to such events, but the bullying treatment of this child brought tears to my eyes.

So if the two men convicted of the murder of Teresa Halbach in Wisconsin in 2007, now serving life sentences, wrote to the MJRC and asked us to take on their case, how would our undergraduate students deal with it?

Of course, for practical reasons, we can only take on UK cases, and US rules governing the admissibility of evidence as well as US police practices are clearly different from those in the UK. But the approach would be similar.

We’d assemble all the documents relating to the case held by those convicted, their friends and families, and their lawyers. The final episode of Making a Murderer shows Avery’s files filling a room in the prison where he’s held, so there’s a lot of paper. We’d scan all that into electronic files and put the paper away. It’s a tedious job, but students are keen to help and work in their spare time, so it gets done and then we have files which we can search and from which we can extract data with a few mouse clicks.

Students would then get to grips with all the details of the case, using straightforward case management methods. They’d take ‘ownership’ of the case, equipped with knowledge which enables them to follow up fresh leads and ideas of their own. Supported by staff directors, they’d find lawyers and experts to give them pro bono help.

First they’d conduct a review of the evidence used in court and the proceedings, to see whether the trial was fair. To us, it’s obvious that Dassey did not have a fair trial, and serious questions remain about Avery’s trial, but these issues have, typically, been explored exhaustively by their lawyers.

So MJRC students would move on to talking to those involved, to the lawyers, families, and especially to the client, who’s often the best source of information and leads. And they’d reconstruct the investigation.

For example, with Avery claiming innocence from the moment of his arrest, did the police never consider other suspects? Did they question members of the victim’s family (as they always do in murder cases like this)? So where are their notes?

Did they obtain her phone records so as to find out precisely where she was? They always get these records, but no such records appear in this case: perhaps they’re missing simply because they support Avery’s version of events, not the prosecution’s. Student investigators would follow such leads, seek disclosure of records that must have been made by the police, and find experts to help them analyse them.

That’s what MJRC students do: obtain withheld evidence, interview prisoners and witnesses, visit crime scenes, then write reports and applications that, hopefully, will lead to a new appeal.

You could call it ‘unmaking a murderer’.

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