Three episodes into the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer,” Steven Avery of Manitowoc, Wis., is locked up for a crime he insists he didn’t commit. Avery calls home from prison and tells his parents that there’s no point in fighting for his innocence.
“They’re gonna win anyway,” Avery says, referring to the local prosecutors who accused him of raping and killing 25-year-old Teresa Halbach. “Poor people lose all the time.”
The Netflix series, which uncovers Avery’s ongoing fight to exonerate himself in the Halbach murder, has inspired thousands of people to sign online petitions for an executive pardon of Avery as well as amateur sleuthing on Reddit to prove his innocence. But the documentary also poses a broader and uncomfortable question about our criminal justice system: Does the bedrock concept of “innocent until proven guilty” apply equally to all?
The presumption of innocence is a concept that goes back to Roman law — immortalized by the phrase “proof lies on him who asserts, not on him who denies.” It took a while for English common law to fully adopt the concept in place of its system of presumed guilt, which favored the nobility. It was Sir William Blackstone who famously coined the formulation in 1765 that we’re familiar with today: “[It is] better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.”
However, the directors of the documentary, Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, frame their series to suggest “presumption of innocence” is not universal. Throughout his trial, Avery is characterized by the show as an impoverished man framed by local police. Of course, it’s important to recognize the obvious bias in “Making a Murderer” — the 10-hour series is only a mere fragment of the months-long trial and includes no interviews with police or local prosecutors.
Still, the details of the Avery case resemble those in hundreds of other wrongful convictions that eventually have led to exoneration. In these cases, defendants have faced an array of issues in the criminal court system: a lack of access to dedicated public defenders; bias among jurors; intimidation tactics used by police while obtaining statements; and overzealous judges and prosecutors elected to be tough on crime.
The result, it appears, is a system that’s stacked against the poor and uneducated. That’s important to discuss in a country where almost one out of every 100 adults are incarcerated and where only 125 people were exonerated from wrongful convictions last year.
There’s also a racial component to the discussion: Minorities make up more than half of the people proved innocent after they have been convicted, with most of these people being black. In many of these cases, the accused must defend themselves against criminal charges while also carrying a tally of previous nonviolent arrests — and it’s no secret that minorities are more likely to be charged with nonviolent crimes in the United States despite similar levels of participation in such crimes across all races.
“The whole reason we made this series was to try to bring light to this story and to (explore) the American criminal justice system and to start a dialogue about how we can do better,” director Moira Demos said in an interview with Vox. “If we prioritize conviction rates rather than having just verdicts, and if we vote that way in elections, this problem will just continue.”
The adversity facing disadvantaged people in our legal system is, of course, nothing new. The Supreme Court recognized the problem in the landmark 1963 case Gideon v. Wainwright, which unanimously ruled that access to a lawyer in criminal cases was a constitutional right regardless of a defendant’s income. The idea was that an uneducated person who couldn’t afford a lawyer had no chance of defending himself or herself against a persistent prosecutor who is well versed in the law.
Following that logic, “Making a Murderer” (and the many cases yet to be decided) calls for a debate on whether “presumption of innocence” is applied equally to all people. Has the legal standard changed with the advent of new technology and greater media presence? How can we ensure that everyone is represented fairly in criminal cases? What reforms should be considered, and why?
Over the next few days, we’ll hear from: