Where Were the Usual Suspects in 'Making a Murderer'?

By leaving out crucial statistics, the Netflix phenomenon plays into clichés about murdered women.
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By leaving out crucial statistics, the Netflix phenomenon plays into clichés about murdered women.
Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos (Photo: Netflix)

Filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos (Photo: Netflix)

No one would ever accuse Making a Murderer of not sweating the details. The Netflix documentary series, released in December, is based on a decade of research by directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos. The series itself—chronicling how one Wisconsin city's sheriff's department used shaky evidence to incarcerate a man on two separate occasions—spans 10 hours, and includes a mix of interviews, news coverage, and trial footage. Consider also that Ricciardi and Demos reported in Wisconsin for two years during production, and Making a Murderer appears to earn the descriptor so often applied to it: "exhaustive."

In one important respect, though, Making a Murderer doesn't do its legwork. The bulk of the series investigates the second time Steven Avery was incarcerated—for the murder of Auto Trader photographer Teresa Halbach in 2005, which little evidence linked him to. As the filmmakers present evidence from both the defense and prosecution in the Halbach murder case, the series indicates Avery might be innocent of this second crime. But as Ricciardi and Moira tell Avery's story, they make a crucial mistake: Like the Manitowoc County Sheriff's Office, the filmmakers don't consult statistics. Data indicates that, when American women are murdered, it's men they know who are most likely to have killed them. The filmmakers don't acknowledge that Halbach might have been murdered by a man close to her. In neglecting to lay out the crucial context for the crime, Making a Murderer plays right into fictional tropes that the public too often swallow about murdered women.

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Making a Murderer's narrow focus on Avery makes for a maddening and effectively dramatic story. The series begins in 1985, the year Avery was wrongfully convicted of a rape and attempted first-degree murder in Manitowoc County. Avery spent 18 years in prison until DNA evidence indicated another man was responsible. He then sued county officials for erroneously putting him behind bars, a suit that involved the deposition of several officials and won Avery $400,000 in 2006. But as Making a Murderer shows, Avery didn't have reason to celebrate his victory over the sheriff's department for long. When Halbach was murdered in 2005 after last being seen at Avery’s house, the police built and won a murder case against Avery that sent him to prison again. Immersing viewers in Avery's story by interviewing family members and friends and re-playing local television coverage and court footage, Ricciardi and Moira show "the face of evil is as ordinary and bland as the shmos working in Manitowoc County," as Robert Rorke put it in the New York Post.

The series fails to give adequate context for this novelistic portrait of a man's suffering at the hands of the law, however. What Making a Murderer doesn't show, to the detriment of its portrayal of the American criminal justice system—which at least one critic has called "terrifying"—is just how exceptional Avery's "murder" would have been. He and Halbach were barely acquaintances, and in more than one-third of cases (as high as 40 percent in some states), women are killed by a "male intimate partner"—that's a current or former lover. Over 50 percent of the women killed by their current or former partners are shot, as Halbach was. This is well-known data, according to Nancy Lemon, author of the casebook Domestic Violence Law and longtime law professor at the University of California–Berkeley. Where murders of women are concerned, a police department's investigation should "always start with the man closest to the victim—especially ex-partners," she said.

It's been online media outlets, not the filmmakers, that have done the bulk of the research on alternate suspects.

As befits its meticulous approach, the series alludes to potential alternate suspects. Ricciardi and Demos screen footage of Avery’s lawyer, Jerome Buting, making the point that the men close to Halbach should have been investigated more thoroughly: “[The police] never from the minute the case was reported considered—seriously considered—the possibility that Teresa Halbach was killed by somebody she knew,” he said in court. It shares, also, seemingly suspicious details about two men that were close to Halbach: Consider Halbach’s roommate, Scott Bloedorn, who didn’t report Halbach was missing for almost four days. Or Ryan Hillegas, the ex-boyfriend who hacked into Hillegas' voicemails (which the phone company later determined had gone missing).

And yet it's been online media outlets, not the filmmakers, that have done the bulk of the research on the men close to Halbach. The Daily Dot recently pointed out that Hillegas illicitly accessed his girlfriend's phone records—which, as writer Andrew Couts point out, is a "flagrant violation of federal law." Bustle followed up with details about Hillegas' life now and shared Reddit theories that he might be the guilty party. The filmmakers, meanwhile, don't provide much context for suggestive evidence that, with a more rigorous data analysis, could be interpreted as suspicious. In an interview with Halbach's co-worker, Tom Pearce, in Making a Murderer's fifth episode, Pearce reveals that Halbach had a stalker before her murder. Whoever it was should have been a suspect, according to Lemon: According to the National Stalking Resource Center, 76 percent of women murdered by male partners were stalked before they were killed.

It's not, of course, the documentarians' job to point fingers or tell viewers what to think. It's worth remembering that Demos and Ricciardi have said that it wasn't their aim to solve the mystery of who killed Halbach.

And it's hardly new for a journalist to gripe that a true crime series skimps on the facts in order to marry compelling art with journalism. The grandfather of narrative non-fiction, Truman Capote's true crime "novel" In Cold Blood, was criticized for taking liberties with the facts. Indeed, the issue seems to rear its head every time history is told through a creative lens: Take Janet Malcolm's excoriation of Joe McGinniss' bestselling true crime book Fatal Vision in her book The Journalist and the Murderer, or dust-ups about the nature of truth following Errol Morris' documentary The Thin Blue Line. More recently, director Andrew Jarecki's The Jinx came under fire for reenacting past eventsMurderer, packaged in documentary form, presents us with the same old tension between the beauty of stories and the ugliness of facts.

Nevertheless, without citing real statistics, the filmmakers play into hackneyed storytelling tropes. While true crime stories about dead women appear to be having a moment—like Making a Murderer, Serial and The Jinx both featured female victims—in the news, and in crime fiction, stories about dead white women always are. Social scientists have long written that white women are over-represented in news coverage of murders, but it's also a trope on television and at the movies.

The "Missing White Women Syndrome," as it's called, has real consequences for viewers consuming these clichés: “Often the assumption is that the white girls are quote-unquote innocent victims whereas with poor children or children of color, there's some nefarious activities involved,” president of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, Dori Maynard, has said. The Manitowoc County police's portrait of Halbach's murder as another case of an "innocent" woman threatened by a crazed stranger resonates, also, with the "Final Girl" trope in horror movies. Coined by film scholar Carol Clover, the "Final Girl" is a horror movie's stock virgin and its "investigating consciousness"—in other words, a device to move the horror plot forward. Without inquiring into the men in Halbach's life, Making a Murderer similarly couples random violence with the unattached woman.

The truth about how women are killed in America is, of course, less paradigmatic. Transposing real-world statistics into a narrative can be messy: The reality that love can turn to violence and romance can prefigure murder is ugly. But it's also common, and for Making a Murderer's filmmakers to have ignored the likely suspects—the men in Halbach's life who had motives, opportunities, means, and the statistical likelihood to have killed her in the very way she died—threatens its value as a work of non-fiction. The result is a simple, if disturbing story with clear good and evil characters, just like a stock fairytale or horror movie. How many slasher flicks is the man with the knife the hitchhiker, the drifter, the hobo, and how many the depressed ex?

The absence of contextual data on American murders also jeopardizes the case for Avery. The filmmakers don't have to be armchair detectives to share statistics on murders of American women: The extra effort would have pointed out reasonable doubts in the Manitowoc County Sheriff Office's case against Avery. Avery may very well have murdered Halbach, but aside from controversial physical evidence, he didn't have a reason to. Leaving a police failure that important out of the story comes across as an omission, not an artistic choice. And a dangerous one, for women.

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