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Steven Avery

Brownstein: Law stands accused in Making a Murderer

Brownstein: Law stands accused in Making a Murderer
 FILE - In this March 13, 2007 file photo, Steven Avery listens to testimony in the courtroom at the Calumet County Courthouse in Chilton, Wis. Avery, a convicted killer who is the subject of the Netflix series "Making a Murderer" filed a new appeal seeking his release Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016 in an appeals court in Madison, Wi. Avery was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide in the death of photographer Teresa Halbach a decade ago. | Photograph by: Morry Gash , Montreal Gazette

Once again, my quest to hike through the Himalayas has been quashed. And plans to bash the atom have again gone up in smoke. Not proud to report, but I spent a sizable chunk of my Christmas vacation simply binging on the new Netflix docu-series Making a Murderer.

But I was far from the only one. In less than a month since it began streaming on Netflix, this 10-part production has become something of a phenomenon, the subject of all sorts of chatter on TV talk-shows and the Internet. For excellent reason. It is an intoxicating series about the apparent miscarriage of justice in the U.S. heartland.

Trust me: you won’t be able to stop watching after just one episode, either. You, too, will become zombielike, avoiding sleep and sustenance to catch every riveting segment.

At the core of it all is Steven Avery, who was likely born a victim. Of limited income and connections, he had run afoul of the law in his native Wisconsin early in life. Something of a rabble-rouser, he worked with his family on their sprawling, ramshackle auto-salvage yard.

When a woman of much higher pedigree was raped in the area in 1985, Avery was immediately assumed to have committed the crime. This, in spite of the fact that a score of affidavits had him far from the crime at the time and that a more likely suspect had been picked up by police in another county.

No matter. The cops and the prosecutors wanted Avery for the crime. And they got their wish. Pleading innocent and vowing to fight the charge till his dying day, Avery was, nonetheless, found guilty of rape and attempted murder.

But something was overlooked: DNA evidence. Nor did it hurt that thanks to this DNA, authorities found the man who did the deed in the first place — the same fellow who had been picked in another county. As a result, Avery was set free after spending 18 years in the slammer.

But the freshly exonerated Avery wasn’t free for long. In the midst of preparing his case to take on local cops in a $36 million lawsuit for wrongful conviction, Avery became the prime suspect in the grisly murder of Teresa Halbach, a young photographer last seen at the Avery family salvage-yard taking pictures of a minivan. And Avery, despite his protestations of innocence, ended up back in the jug again.

Incidentally, these events don’t represent the entire series — they are just the opening. But they caught the attention of neophyte directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, who had met as graduate students in Columbia University’s film program in 2005. They had been alerted to Avery’s reputed crime after reading a piece in the New York Times and then spent nearly a decade in assembling this series. (Of note: both PBS and HBO apparently turned down the series before the directors were able to persuade Netflix to produce it.)

And Ricciardi and Demos aren’t finished yet. There are rumblings of a second season as a result of new developments.

Without divulging what transpires, be assured that viewers will be left gobsmacked by the efforts of authorities to put Avery away for good. We’re talking major tampering of evidence. We’re talking unbelievable coercion imposed on a severely mentally challenged witness and alleged accomplice. And we’re talking the defence team collaborating with the prosecution. Perry Mason, this ain’t.

Though the directors seek to provide balance, there is no doubt as to where their sympathies — and probably those of most viewers — lie. It’s hard not to feel for the little man. But the fact is that given the clear prejudices of the authorities, it can become easy to cloud issues, so viewers ought to be careful before rushing to judgment.

We have been bombarded with scores of fictionalized cop dramas on the tube over the years, shows that invariably leave us believing in the righteousness of the law. What is most unsettling about Making a Murderer is that such is not always the case, that when those forces of good with abundant resources want to rid society of a presumed aberrant, they can and they will.

It’s no accident this series has so gripped the fascination and paranoia of all those who have caught it. Not that there was much doubt before, but the series really strikes a frightening note on the notion of trust.

As we have witnessed repeatedly over the years, the sad reality is, of course, that mankind everywhere is much flawed. Another sad reality, as pointed out by Steven Avery’s beleaguered pop, is that “the poor always lose.”

AT A GLANCE

Making a Murderer, a 10-part documentary series, is available for streaming on Netflix.

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