The Problem with Treating True Crime Villains like Fictional Villains
In the wake of Serial and HBO's The Jinx, Netflix's true crime series Making a Murdererwas the definition of a sure bet. Debuting less than two weeks ago, Netflix's enormous audience devoured it and is already expressing articulate outrage about the events it depicts — the wrongful arrest and trial of Steven Avery for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach. If you've been on Twitter at all the past couple weeks, I'm not telling you anything you don't know. Ken Kratz, former district attorney of Calumet County, Wisconsin, and the lead prosecutor in Steven Avery's case, is the main recipient of this furor.
Kratz is a smarmy guy, with the look and nasally mumble of a Jurassic Park-era Wayne Knight, who we constantly see evading pointed questions about the gaping logic in the prosecution's narrative. Along with a chilling, stone-faced lieutenant who is accused of planting Avery's blood at the crime scene, he is the series' primary villain. He is now receiving death threats, and the Yelp page for his law firm is filling up with negative reviews — some violent, most furious.
It's a classist tradition as old as time, and Steven Avery is a hallmark victim of it.
Kratz (who, beyond playing one of the most pivotal roles in the travesty, also lost his position as district attorney for sexually harassing a client who was a victim of domestic violence) is obviously easy to despise. And writing terrible Yelp reviews has become a fairly common and easy expression of frustration or disgust with public figures. True crime provides the rare opportunity to express hatred for a real life villain, not a fictional one — these reviews read more like a Reddit discussion of Ramsay Bolton than a cogent expose of a public official.
This isn't to say they aren't extremely satisfying to read, and probably to write. But the story the series tells is much bigger than that of a run-of-the-mill nincompoop who can be shamed and neutralized by the same means as the guy who shot Cecil the Lion.
Making a Murderer documents three unfortunate decades for Avery, who was arrested and falsely convicted of rape in 1985, with no physical evidence and despite more than 20 alibi witnesses. When he was exonerated through DNA testing in 2003 (with help from the Wisconsin Innocence Project), he sought a $36 million settlement with the county police department. Not two years later he was arrested for murder.
As the show makes clear, the case against Avery is unbelievably shabby. Allegations that evidence was planted are never fully shot down. Motivations are never given a moment's thought. The logic and timeline of the state's account of the events could be ripped apart by a toddler. The most obvious overlooked suspect, the victim's ex-boyfriend (who mysteriously points a volunteer directly to the crime's largest piece of evidence) was never questioned, and is in fact, given access to the crime scene. And yet, Avery is convicted of homicide, acquitted of mutilation of a corpse — an unexplained contradiction in charges — and sentenced to life in prison.
This isn't a case of someone being in the wrong place at the wrong time; law enforcement's bizarre obsession with Avery suggests that he had a socioeconomic target on his back. Every small town has at least one family that takes up more room than it's supposed to. Their yards are full of cars that don't run, illegal burn pits, and dirtbikes. Their kids are stupid, dirty, constantly getting suspended from school. Four generations or more take up residence on sprawling compounds of tiny houses and overflowing trailers. Their surname is only uttered with the most dripping disdain; they're trashy, trouble. Any criminal activity they are associated with, no matter how petty or gruesome, is "less than surprising." It's a classist tradition as old as time, and Steven Avery is a hallmark victim of it.
The promise of "innocent until proven guilty" holds little water in such a setting, a fact which Avery's defense lawyers are vocally aware of, and repeatedly bring up in court. Kratz remarks at its close, "We had a pretty good idea going into this prosecution the kind of individual that Mr. Avery was," and leaves it at that.
We want to be able to spit at our bad guys in the face.
Avery's 16-year-old nephew implicates himself as a co-conspirator in the rape and murder through what is clearly a coerced false confession. Later, in a phone call to his mother he says with resignation that he knows he's too stupid to fight back. The two police officers who questioned him breeze past the judge by way of claiming that they have "no training in child psychology" and therefore knew not what they did. That defense was provided by Kratz, but backed up by the two officers, legitimized by a judge, and accepted by a jury.
As with most fictional worlds with imminently despicable villains at their center, from Gotham to Westeros to the Wizarding World, it's much easier to direct your vitriol at the obvious spectacle of a bad guy than it is to look at the societal forces that have shaped them. Generations of inequality, apathetic bureaucracies, prejudice and wanton cruelty simmer underneath every story we tell, but it's harder to process such widespread phenomenon. We want to be able to spit at our bad guys in the face.
In other words, Kratz is only a solitary villain in the American justice system — the system is the real villain. But the system doesn't have a Yelp page on which to post one's grievances. So instead of spilling your post-bingewatch rage in the same place you whine about your local pizza joint, why not make a donation to the Innocence Project?