What does Netflix' Making a Murderer mean for the New Zealand justice system? video

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Making a Murderer was a worldwide hit in 2016

SPOILER WARNING: The article contains spoilers for the Netflix show Making a Murderer.

"The truth always comes out sooner or later," muses Making a Murderer's star-of-sorts, Steven Avery, in the final episode of Netflix' smash-hit documentary series.

The convicted murderer might have been the world's unluckiest man, having spent 18 years behind bars for a rape he didn't commit before being freed, then being handed a life sentence for a murder he maintains police framed him for.

Steven Avery spent 18 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit. He's now been back behind bars for 10 years for ...
INNOCENCE PROJECT

Steven Avery spent 18 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit. He's now been back behind bars for 10 years for murder, but maintains he's innocent.

Right now, tens of thousands of amateur sleuths are attempting to find the truth in his case.

Between yelling at their televisions, they're getting together online, digging through old evidence, tossing around theories, and signing petitions, to again set free a man many people believe is innocent - thanks to the TV show.

READ MORE:
* Netflix takes a leaf from Serial with Making a Murderer series
* White House responds to Making a Murderer petition
* Peter Jackson celebrates release of West Memphis Three from prison
* Teina Pora's compensation claim will get independent review
* Paying the price of innocence

Joe Kearney and Amelia Caldwell couldn't tear their eyes away from the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer.
LAURA WALTERS/FAIRFAX NZ

Joe Kearney and Amelia Caldwell couldn't tear their eyes away from the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer.

 



Wrongful convictions have existed as long as there's been a criminal justice system, but to fans of Making a Murderer and other pop culture hits, like last year's podcast Serial, the time has come to make a change - and it could have ripples in New Zealand's own justice system.

Damien Echols (left) with actor Johnny Depp, who advocated for the West Memphis Three.
FRED THORNHILL

Damien Echols (left) with actor Johnny Depp, who advocated for the West Memphis Three.

THE FANS

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Like many others, Joe Kearney and his girlfriend Amelia Caldwell binge-watched Making a Murderer.

The pair heard about the show through word of mouth and decided to find out what the fuss was about. Soon, they were staying up until to 2.30am watching it to find out what would happen next.

Sir Peter Jackson's involvement in the film West of Memphis - and his monetary support for new testing in the case - ...
AP

Sir Peter Jackson's involvement in the film West of Memphis - and his monetary support for new testing in the case - helped free the three men.

"What it comes down to, and it sounds horrible, is I was entertained by it," Kearney says.

"I'm not watching 10 episodes because I feel like I should, I'm watching the episodes because it's entertaining. It got my blood boiling."

Part of the appeal of the wave of TV series, films and podcasts on wrongful convictions was being able to debate the case with fellow viewers and listeners - but Kearney says he and Caldwell continued watching to see whether the victims received justice, he said.

Teina Pora with 3D's Eugene Bingham and Paula Penfold on the night the Privy Council quashed his conviction.
TV3

Teina Pora with 3D's Eugene Bingham and Paula Penfold on the night the Privy Council quashed his conviction.

"You want the bad guy to lose almost as much as you want the good guy to win."

Caldwell says what stuck with her about Making a Murderer, and the films West of Memphis and Central Park Five, was that all of the accused were "everyday people".

While the pair are engrossed in Making a Murderer at the moment, they admit they are unlikely to seek out further information on this case and similar ones in future - partly because it's just too sad.

Tim McKinnel worked as a private investigator on Teina Pora's case. Now he's helping establish the NZ Public Interest ...

Tim McKinnel worked as a private investigator on Teina Pora's case. Now he's helping establish the NZ Public Interest Project to investigate potential miscarriages of justice.

THE CONVICTED MAN

That's exactly how it feels for one man who's better placed than nearly anyone to understand Avery's predicament: one of the three men who West of Memphis helped set free.

Damien Echols was an 18-year-old metalhead when he and two other Arkansas teens - known as the West Memphis Three - were arrested in 1993 for the murder of three young boys.

They were found guilty, and Echols was sentenced to death.

But thanks to the 1996 documentary Paradise Lost and its sequels, the trio rose to prominence as one of the most high-profile suspected miscarriages of justice in history.

After the film's release, the band Metallica, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, and actor Johnny Depp, took up the mens' fight.

Sir Peter Jackson later came on board, co-producing West of Memphis with Echols, and funding new testing in the case.

The new evidence gleaned from the films supported their innocence, and in 2011, the trio were released from prison under a rare plea deal - but they haven't yet been exonerated.

Echols - who has spent time in New Zealand since his release - says without the documentaries, there's no way he'd be free today.

"The films and media coverage toward the end made all the difference in my case. I'm convinced we wouldn't have been released without the information provided by these sources," he told Stuff via email.

"Paradise Lost drew thousands of people from around the world to support us, and that brought pressure upon the state of Arkansas.

"West of Memphis is a concise, complete documentation of what happened, which will continue to educate people about our case, and what happens in many wrongful conviction cases. It will continue to bring pressure upon the state to exonerate us."

Like millions of others, Echols has taken an interest in Avery's case - due, in part, to the sheer numbers of people contacting him to point out similarities between their cases - but he actively avoids Making a Murderer.

"I don't watch or listen to any shows about wrongful convictions. It's just too much like going back into that nightmare for me."

THE CAMPAIGNERS

Similarities have been drawn, too, with Kiwi exoneree Teina Pora: notably, the coerced confessions of both Pora and Avery's co-accused, then-teenager Brendan Dassey.

Paula Penfold, the 3D journalist whose reporting on Pora's case helped set him free, and Pora's private investigator Tim McKinnel have both been watching Making a Murderer.

They hope the sudden pop culture appeal of miscarriages of justice will have a positive impact on the way justice unfolds in New Zealand.

"I think it's a really interesting phenomenon out there at the moment. I think it's a really good thing," Penfold says.

She can't help feeling outraged while watching the Netflix series.

"I'm almost yelling at the TV sometimes. The way that the police and justice system handled the case is just astonishingly bad."

For McKinnel, too, it's a tough watch.

"There are so many striking similarities to Teina's case and what happened to him, so many.

"That is, at times, quite hard to watch and you feel those emotions start to rise, those frustrations, those roadblocks, that institutional arrogance from the state about what you're doing and why it is you're doing it."

As in the West Memphis Three case, McKinnel has little doubt the media and public attention on Pora's case made the slow-turning wheels of justice move more quickly.

"That noise becomes important at a couple of levels. It helps with the collection of evidence - when people are aware of cases being examined and being looked at again, they're more likely to talk to you.

"With the [Maori TV] documentary about Teina's case, it led to a crucial piece of evidence being discovered by us.

"At a political level and a legal level, it helped, the attention helped. I think with the police, it grated with them, and I don't know if it helped with them."

THE EXPERT

In the United States, 1728 wrongly-convicted people have been exonerated since 1989 - but a Kiwi expert says there's no reason to believe New Zealand's justice system is getting it wrong any less often.

"We're on the same continuum as the US; we might not be in the exact same location but we're on the same path, and that's disturbing," Auckland University criminologist Ron Kramer says.

While he sees series like Making a Murderer and Serial as a good use of popular culture - "better than watching the Kardashians" - Kramer worries a focus on wrongful convictions will see other, less shocking justice issues continue to be overlooked, including the over-representation of Maori and Pasifika in prisons.

He's concerned, too, that the shows encourage armchair detectives to try to find the true culprit - turning the adage of "innocent until proven guilty" back on its head once again.

In New Zealand, you'll find plenty such sleuths willing to venture an opinion about every case that's raised a doubt, from Arthur Allan-Thomas to Pora, and the likes of David Bain, Scott Watson, Peter Ellis, Mark Lundy and David Dougherty in between.

Kramer says there's an obvious plus side to the public taking a greater interest in the justice system: a "healthy skepticism" about police, the courts and prisons, and how they interact with us.

WHERE TO FROM HERE?

The films, shows and podcasts also raise the question: what happens to those whose stories aren't attention-grabbing enough for air-time?

Both Kramer and McKinnel say New Zealand needs a Criminal Case Review Commission to look into potential miscarriages of justice, instead of leaving it to media. The current government's pooh-poohed the idea; Labour's promised to establish the agency, if elected.

In lieu of an independent Crown-funded body, McKinnel's involved in setting up the new NZ Public Interest Project, a Kiwi equivalent of the US Innocence Project, which itself has secured 337 exonerations across the United States.

For now, he certainly sees an advantage for those fighting against the justice system in being able to get their stories across in the media.

"It changes how people are treated, and things are thought about a lot more carefully and in a lot more depth than if there was this vacuum and nobody was really paying attention."

Kramer is concerned about what the spotlight means for those who aren't in it.

"Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam was really invested in [the West Memphis Three case] and drew a lot of attention to it. But there's only so many West Memphis Threes that Eddie Vedder can pay attention to - he can't keep track of all of them.

"It's a very bad mechanism for trying to address injustices associated with the criminal justice system."

Echols - who Vedder's efforts helped free - agrees the media attention can be a double-edged sword.

"It's a huge advantage. It enables [the convicted person] to get the truth out; it can humanise the wrongfully convicted and reach many people, which can lead to resources and support," he says.

"It's important that it's done professionally, though - the media can take words and turn them around. It can be a slippery slope."

And although he hasn't seen Making a Murderer, Echols says the show's outraged fans - including those in New Zealand - can help make a change for Avery and Dassey.

"Inundate the State of Wisconsin with letters, petitions, don't let up or go away until justice is served.

"They only cave when they know they are being watched. Shine a big, huge light on the corruption and hold it there until they scurry like rats."

 - Stuff

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