Crime Documentaries: Are They Really Helping?

I’m happy to be able to host a guest blog today from first-year student Christina Sonageri.

Technology has changed the way we do a lot of things—including the way we stream content. With the advent of platforms like Netflix, HBO Go, Amazon Prime and Hulu, society has access to movies and shows at the click of a button. The change in how we are able to watch has helped to facilitate a more efficient way for producers and writers to share their stories.

One genre that I think has really flourished as a result is the crime documentary. Now, even when I hear the word “documentary,” my mind begins to swirl with mug shots of Steven Avery, the subject of Netflix’s Making a Murderer series, and images of the countless other subjects whose faces define the genre. Every time a new crime story is released, it seems it’s the only thing that anyone can talk about.

However, growing up the daughter of two lawyers initially made me skeptical of anyone who was trying to fit a whole case into just a few hours of television or film. So I decided to sit down and explore whether these types of documentaries are helpful or detrimental to the people involved in the crime—and what their impact on society’s faith in the justice system might be.

Making a Murderer is one of the most well-known and infamous crime documentaries of the recent past, due in part to the case’s continued prevalence in the news and the talk of a second installment to be made. The series was released on Netflix in December of 2015 in ten one-hour episodes. The documentary caught audiences’ attention immediately and public outrage ensued not long after.

If you don’t know the story of convicted murderer Steven Avery, his life went something like this: He grew up in small Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, and spent nearly two decades in prison for a rape he didn’t commit. He was released after being proven innocent of the crime, but within a few short years, he found himself behind bars again for the murder of a 25-year-old photographer who was last seen taking pictures at Avery’s house. Steven and his nephew, Brendan Avery, were tried and found guilty in the spring of 2007. Netflix delves into the Avery family’s world to uncover the flaws, disparities, and police missteps in the murder case, all of which built sympathy for the Avery men.

The problems in the murder trial range from the possibility of planted blood evidence to the much talked about police tactics used in getting Brendan’s confession. People were outraged that the detectives in the case interrogated 16-year-old Brendan with no parent or attorney present while knowing he had a very low IQ (eventually established to be 70—legally learning disabled). In this instance, both the show and the public were right to be angry. After the release of the series, an investigation into Brendan’s illegal confession resulted in his conviction being overturned. And even though this decision is currently on appeal, there is now pressure on the prosecutors to go back to the case once more and decide whether there is enough evidence to uphold Steven Avery’s murder conviction if they can’t the use the confession.

Wrongful convictions are a major problem in our society, and recent examples of exonerations aided by our very own BC Law Innocence Program or members of our alumni prove that point. An example is the overturning of the conviction of Dennis Maher, whose story of being wrongly convicted and serving 19 years in prison for two sexual assaults he didn’t commit bears a striking resemblance to Steven Avery’s own. There is no question we need to do everything we can as a society to address these terrible injustices.

However, while I was happy about Brendan’s release, because I agree his confession should’ve been inadmissible, I’m still hesitant to get on board with the people advocating for Steven’s innocence who are basing their opinions solely on what they saw on television and not necessarily on what actually occurred in the courtroom. Because let’s face it, the show wasn’t exactly unbiased.

Seeing the people around me so quickly come to the conclusion that Steven Avery is innocent after watching just ten hours of footage on a case that spanned years, made me worry about what this would mean for society as a whole. In my mind, filmmakers should want to present a neutral and complete story; but their job is to create the most compelling and entertaining version possible so it attracts the most viewers. While these ideas aren’t mutually exclusive, in Making a Murderer it is quite clear which side the filmmakers want the audience to come out on—Steven’s. The documentary looks at the facts and evidence in the light that best works for proving his innocence and it never really gets into the prosecution’s strongest points.

This leads me to question whether the genre is doing more harm than good to the perceptions we have of what “justice” really is. By presenting a story that so strongly supports one side of a case (whichever side that might be), the creators are essentially showing the “right” side for their viewers to be on.

Technology has had an impact on almost everything in society—including the legal system. More and more often these days, it seems, cases are tried in the court of public opinion through the media and now, through social media. As a result, you have people joining a cause just because of what they see and hear about a case from these secondary sources. It can create a dangerous whirlwind of inadequately informed people arguing for “justice.”

The question is, how do any of us know what’s right? With only the first few weeks of law school under my belt, I am just beginning to see how confusing and difficult cases can be to understand when you weren’t there to experience the investigation or trial first-hand. A court’s decision can be influenced by so many factors, and the judgments are not always based only on the ideals of innocence and guilt. The cases discussed in most crime documentaries are intricate and puzzling; that’s why they make such great entertainment.

Law is not an easy thing—it’s not easy to understand, or practice, or even write about. I think that many people’s appreciation for the gravity of how determinations of guilt and innocence are arrived at may be devolving because of the proliferation and accessibility of crime documentaries. I fear that such shows will strengthen viewers’ tendencies to rush to unsupported conclusions and judgments and that society’s trust and faith in the legal system and law enforcement will continue to disintegrate. At this point, is that really what society needs?

–Christina Sonageri.


One thought on “Crime Documentaries: Are They Really Helping?

  1. Thank you for publishing this interesting read. The problem with crime documentaries such as the one you have highlighted are no different from crime dramas, such as Zodiac (2007). Many viewers just believe what they see is a fact-based representation of the truth. It is also a mistake to assume that the documentary genre has more obligations than dramas to portray, what some film-makers will call, “the accountant’s truth”. Such film-makers will claim they are aiming for a “deeper truth” in deliberately portraying something that never happened, often with the co-operation of the film’s subjects who understand what the film-maker is getting at. If viewer want concrete facts, perhaps they shouldn’t be looking for them in mediums that are primarily concerned with artistic expression or entertainment.


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