OPINION COLUMNS

Documentary asks hard questions of criminal justice system

By Brian Knox | Published Saturday, February 6, 2016
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Despite being a “crime and courts” reporter, I rarely watch “crime drama” television.

Maybe its because I deal enough with the real thing, I don’t want to spend my precious free time watching more of the same.

But when I heard the discussion around the recent Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer,” I found myself drawn into the story about a man who spent nearly 20 years in prison only to be exonerated by DNA evidence.

Brian Knox

Brian Knox

Only to then be – spoiler alert – arrested again, charged with and then convicted of murder in another case.

Perhaps what drew me to the show was how true to life it felt. Unlike an hour-long television drama where a crime is solved miraculously within that time frame and everything is tied up in a nice, tidy bow, real life is rarely that way.

“Making a Murderer,” with its deliberate pacing over a 10-part series, showed that.

And while some people might have missed the point of the documentary (Is he guilty or innocent??), I think the true point of it was to show where mistakes can be made in the criminal justice system and to ask us to take a hard look at the way crimes are prosecuted.

It struck a chord with many people, particularly in light of the questions being asked of law enforcement by the “Black lives matter” campaign. Whether justified or not, many people feel like they are unfairly treated by law enforcement based on factors such as skin color, poverty level, sexual orientation, or even by the people they may hang out with.

Or in Steven Avery’s case, your past criminal history or even who your family is.

What may have been the most moving part of the show was watching the real-life drama play out through the eyes of Steven’s family members. It provided a rarely-seen glimpse of how a family is affected when one is accused of and ultimately sentenced for a horrible crime.

Throughout the series, family members were seen spending countless hours working to help Steven prove his innocence. You could also see the frustration in their faces when they felt like the justice system had let them down.

The show has gotten some criticism from some who felt like it downplayed the fact that a young woman was brutally murdered. That’s understandable, but that wasn’t what this particular documentary was about.

Rather, it placed you not in the victim’s shoes, but in the accused, and then it asked you, “What if this was you?”

The show brings up many serious questions about how evidence was collected and even goes so far as to suggest evidence might have been planted to ensure Steven was convicted of the crime.

And at the end of the series, the verdict is: we don’t know if evidence was planted. Clearly, the jury didn’t think so.

I know the danger of trying to figure out if someone is guilty or not without hearing all the facts of a case. Based on what I saw in the show, I would have to lean toward guilty.

But again, that wasn’t really the point. Even though I may feel like he did it, I’m still concerned with issues brought up about the investigation. (I mean, why exactly were key pieces of evidence found by the same department who was not supposed to be investigating because they were the ones who were involved in Steven’s original overturned conviction and had been interviewed for a lawsuit just days before?)

Mistakes can be made with any investigative agency. Most defense attorneys I’ve seen spend quite a bit of time and energy in trials grilling an officer on the stand about why they did what they did, trying to point out anything that might have been wrong or improper.

And ultimately, it’s up to a jury to decide if the evidence is credible or not.

Newspapers seem to get a lot of mail from inmates, and ours is no exception. It’s not uncommon for us to receive a piece of mail from someone who, like Steven, says he was convicted of a crime he didn’t commit.

All we can hope for is that justice will be done.

I’ve heard District Judge John Fostel tell a jury at the conclusion of a trial, “Our justice system may not be perfect, but it is still the best in the world.”

I believe that.

But to ensure that’s true, we must continue to ask the hard questions like the ones brought up in “Making a Murderer.”

Brian Knox is the Messenger’s special projects manager.

One Response to “Documentary asks hard questions of criminal justice system”

  1. Rusty White says:

    Brian,

    Well done!

    Sadly in Wise County and many others all across this State and Nation, there is an abuse of powers by those controlling our legal system. This abuse is so blatant they don’t even try and hide it. Because they “know” poor people do not have the means to demand the same supposed fair and equal justice “others” receive.

    It would be interesting to see you do an article on how many citizens have and are “forced” to accept a one sided plea agreement verse those that actually get their day in court. “WITHOUT” being threatened with receiving the maximum sentence if they refuse a plea agreement! I believe you will find very few people are actually being given their “Constitutional” rights to a “fair and unbiased” trial of their peers.

    With your knowledge of our legal system and access, it should not be to hard to come up with simple and real numbers of trials verse plea agreements, should it? Many times those abusing our citizens and our “supposed” fair and equal justice system, do so under the guise of case overload, and savings to the tax payers time and money! Could it possibly be our laws have been manipulated to the point to many citizens are being needlessly arrested?

    It would be interesting to know how many of our citizens being “forced” to accept these supposed deals, have “no victim or violence” in their supposed crimes? I as a 20 year tax payer and resident of Wise County would rather see our tax dollars, courts, probation, enforcement and “limited” resources used on “real criminals”! You know those that do have “victims and violence” in their crimes! Instead of for power, job security, political and personal agendas.

    There is a “limit” to how long and how much we the citizens, families and tax payers will accept this abuse while footing the bill for those needlessly convicted and their families! As well as how long we will continue supporting these private prisons, which in reality are nothing more than a “people ranching” business for profit!!! IMHO

    Is it possible for you to do this investigation?

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