Making of a Murderer- A Good Documentary About An Ugly Problem

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This week my wife and I watched the Netflix documentary “Making of a Murderer.”  In telling you this, I feel a little like I am at an AA meeting.  Yes we binge-watched all 10 episodes in 2 days.  That is a long documentary. But I was thoroughly engrossed in the story in spite of a several slow moments.  The account was so engaging, and even outrageous, that I experienced some of those rare and precious moments of self-forgetfulness. Those moments when a story is so gripping that you are carried to a place where you forget that you are tired, hungry, or even broke.

In short, the documentary is the story of how Steven Avery was sent to prison for 18 years for a rape he didn’t commit. This conviction happened in the face of ample evidence that the real bad guy was still out on the street. Eventually Avery was released after DNA evidence revealed the real criminal.  The story highlights the antagonism between the small town sheriff’s department and the Avery family. I think “bad blood” is the proper term for all this.

Sadly, several years later during a law suit against the sheriff’s department Avery is investigated and convicted of a heinous murder. I will avoid ruining the show with spoilers. But suffice it to say the story exposes MAJOR problems with the justice system, which is on display in large screen, full color, HD, stereo surround, screw-up mode.

I would recommend watching it (not for kids as it has some graphic language and content- it involves trials for murder and rape). It felt like a crime novel unfolding in real life.  The documentary footage seemed to come from live footage of the events that were recorded for some kind of court TV special.

Here are a two thoughts.

First, Our justice system has major problems. I think it is still one of the best in the world at offering protections for the innocent. But we have big problems to solve.  The fact that once someone has entered the criminal justice system they become a target for future law enforcement harassment is disturbing and in the long run counter productive. I realize that there are many career criminals, and that law enforcement efforts will need to investigate and prosecute repeat offenders. I have no problem with that. I do have a problem with a system that goes too far in this respect. And honestly I don’t know the answer. I just have a deep gut feeling that the machine needs an overhaul. I hope that some brilliant and informed minds will address this problem. We also do not have enough qualified defense attorneys.  I also don’t like the fact that prosecution decisions are made with elections in mind. The plea bargain system very often has little to do with guilt or innocence, but with an accused person making a decision to plead because they cannot mount a good legal defense. I have mentioned this elsewhere.

Second, I realized (once more) how much I HATE the way the news media exploits people and tragedy for ratings.  There is such an utter disregard for personal space, polite attempts to avoid the spotlight, and basic manners. The truth is treated with outright contempt. The intersection of our culture and the criminal justice system seems to be this huge dysfunctional mess where people in power manipulate the lurid desires of media consumers through the willing help of journalists without a passing regard for what is true or ultimately helpful. The film shows that this cancer has more than a passing impact on viewers, it has the potential to corrupt the court system and destroy the lives of innocent people. In effect, the media becomes a court room from hell. It becomes a nightmare where there are no rules, no protections, and no court of appeal. And this goes into full effect when anyone experiences a tragedy that can be turned into grist for the ratings mill.

Update 1/6/15

I should add that I am aware that this documentary only provides one side of the story. Some reports are coming out presenting additional info. I have left out my thoughts on this to avoid spoilers. But I do understand there another side to this, and still think this reveals problems in the criminal justice system. 

Don’t Walk Like A Wounded Animal, and You Won’t Attract The Wolves

Here is some useful information about how criminals select their victims. There is obviously more to the story, but this is helpful. They have a kind of intuition about which people are vulnerable and which potential victims are unlikely to resist or defend themselves. Some recent research continues to confirm this.

“Multiple studies have been done on how criminals select their victims. As such we have an accurate picture of what criminals look at in order to establish whether someone is vulnerable to victimization. Some of the most recent research on the subject confirms very startling notions.”

Also the author writes:

“What does this mean to the average person? The way you carry yourself can help single you out or rule you out for victimization.  While there is victim selection criteria like your gender or age that you cannot change, you can stack the deck in your favor.  Walking confidently and not exhibiting behaviors of distraction, ie: fidgeting, fumbling with cell phone, are minimal effort ways to help rule yourself out.  In the simplest terms, do you walk like you have the ability to defend yourself?  Do you drag your feet and act like a wounded animal?  Most of us give these behaviors very little attention because we have been doing them the same for years.  This was brought to my attention at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.  We were shown countless videos, and spared countless more, of police officers falling victim to an attacker due to complacency and ultimately how they carried themselves.  While you cannot control the people around you or their depravity, you do not have to carry yourself like a victim.”

 

Source: From the minds of Psychopaths: How not to be a victim – Beyond the Sights

The Racial Reality of Policing- Beware of Simple Solutions

It is dangerously attractive look for simple solutions to complex problems. And it is tempting to cling to them even against the evidence when they are offered.  Our country seems to be divided on the issue of homocide in the black community. And this division falls in line with a love of simple ideological answers.

Liberals are quick to blame the police and describe the situation as “open season” on black men.  To be sure, they have a growing body of evidence, much of it now on Youtube, that many police departments have been abusing their authority under the purview of the indifferent eyes of the white community. The facts tell a tale that blacks are disproportionately sent to prison for even minor crimes. And sadly, the list goes on from there. And this generates a distrust that undermines even sincere attempts for justice in black neighborhoods. Read the article for some troubling accounts from detective Conlon about times when his attempts to gain convictions for crimes committed by blacks against other blacks were unsuccessful.

Conservatives are quick to blame the black community and point out the disparity of numbers. If black lives matter, why are protestors focusing on the 129 black men killed by legal intervention (the number is likely much higher), and not focusing on the 6,739 black men murdered by mostly other young black men? They ask, why is there so little discussion absence of black fathers and the erosion of families?  Many conservatives are quick to discuss personal responsibility,  and act as if the only place to find racism is in the media.

This article by retired NYPD detective Edward Conlon is interesting to me because he acknowledges problems on many sides of this issue. Further, he suggests that those problems play against each other in some tragic ways.  They not only contribute to the problem, but work to hinder any practical solutions.  I have often felt like I was in the middle on this issue.  I have found myself occasionally listening to both sides on these issues and alternately agreeing or shaking my head in frustration.  It is frustrating when when we only see what we want to see, or repeat what our chosen news outlets tell us.

Last year Ta-Nehesi Coates wrote a lengthy and moving piece in the Atlantic on “A Case For Reparations.”  His essay was powerful and worth reading, but in the end I suspect he falls into the trap of oversimplification.  In a follow up article he wrote, “There is massive, overwhelming evidence for the proposition that white supremacy is the only thing wrong with black people.” That is to say, the black community is not responsible for any of its problems.  Coates is not alone in that kind of simplistic approach. There are plenty of white conservatives that would suggest the opposite, that whites aren’t responsible for anything wrong in the black community either. The cops are the problem. Blacks are the problem. A or B. Choose.  What is worse,  both groups are at risk of viewing even factual statements made by the other side with suspicion.  If you accuse the police of racism you must hate law and justice. If you suggest that the black community has an internal epidemic of violence, you must not care about police brutality. Either you are a black racist or a white racist.

I believe that the reality is far more complex, and it will only be when both sides acknowledge their contribution to the current mess that we have any hope of finding a solution. When someone points the finger instead of accepting responsibility, they loose credibility in the discussion and undermine any motivation to deal with their own problems.

Edward Conlon makes a good point, there were 2 reports released after Ferguson, and we need to read them both to get a clear picture.

“In March, Attorney General Eric Holder released two reports on Ferguson. One covered in great detail the shooting death of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson; the other described the broader patterns of policing in the city. Partisans have tended to choose one report or the other to support their reading of events.

“No, Brown wasn’t shot in the back while attempting to surrender to a white cop, nor was he shot for jaywalking. He had just robbed a store, and he had punched Officer Wilson in the face and tried to steal his gun. In the wake of Brown’s death, Ferguson burned because people believed a lie; because many still believe it, cops have been shot there, and the threat of riot remains.

“The other report showed that Ferguson was a speed trap for people going nowhere, six square miles of mostly black people, mostly poor, with 50 cops, almost all white, who were ordered to milk them for every possible nickel by white city managers. Black people were further bled dry in a punitive cycle of fines and fees; missed court dates led to arrest warrants, which left them increasingly incapable of having a chance at a productive life.” (emphasis mine)

Ben Carson recently wrote an editorial on the “Black Lives Matter” movement.  He points to the complexity of these issues. He refuses to see this as a problem with a single cause. He points the finger at our schools, Hollywood, Washington, crack dealers, Democrats, and Republicans. I think he is on to something.

Source: The Racial Reality of Policing – WSJ

An Overlooked Area Of Criminal Justice Reform.

Colin Miller has an interesting and brief article about wrongful convictions. He writes:

“Two key statistics: 95% of disposed American criminal cases are resolved by guilty pleas, often as a result of plea bargains. And 80% of people arrested in this country are represented by public defenders. These statistics are not unrelated. Public defenders are underfunded and overworked, and often refuse to take new cases.”

This brings up an important issue in reforming our very broken justice system. Why do we allow the lawyers that defend most of the accused in America to be low paid and inexperienced public defenders? Why isn’t there a national credential required for public defenders? I am told anyone that passes the Bar exam can become a defense attorney and defend the accused unless it is a capital case. I wonder if we would accept that for our surgeons? Why don’t we spend more money so that there are an adequate number of attorneys so that the accused can be adequately represented? Wouldn’t it be both more just and cheaper to do this than to incarcerate so many innocent people?

‘Serial’: How common are wrongful convictions in the U.S.?.

Why a Street Criminal Stole a Multi-Million-Dollar Violin | Vanity Fair

Why a Street Criminal Stole a Multi-Million-Dollar Violin | Vanity Fair.

If you like fascinating stories about true crime, here is a fun read.  It features the dumb criminal, the chatty get-away driver/wife, and a determined police chief that knows the historical significance of a Stradivarius violin. And… it’s not a long read.

The article brings up an important question, which the thieves didn’t consider: You stole it, now what?  Another is why would you want to steal this item when you can’t play it and you can’t sell it?  Even though it is worth $6 million, no one will buy it for that much.   It seems the robber has an ego, and one that exceeds his planning and skills.