You reach a certain point in the documentary where your sadness at the circumstances of the Holbach case and the outrage at how the Manitowoc Sherriff’s department handled the Steven Avery case turn to thoughts and feelings of hopelessness. The natural response is outrage. Especially when you get to the eleventh episode and you watch the trial of the kid. That one made me want to punch the prosecutor in the face after watching him deliver his closing argument. What a lot of people don’t seem to realize about this documentary is that the sort of corruption that is depicted in the film is systemic and though prevalent in many Wisconsin counties (yes, I totally own the fact that my state has a corrupt legal system) this is a larger national issue that I’m glad we’re talking about. Much less sophisticated frame-ups have been successful in other areas.
What is truly disturbing about the film is what it exposes not only about the prejudice of the people involved in the process, but the prejudice of the process itself. Look at the decision by the judge not to let the defense introduce a third party alternative early on in the trial or the judge’s decision to allow the FBI evidence that virtually no one stands by. The list goes on and on, but at the end of the day we need a better process for handling evidence. Whether it’s with police departments and addressing the chain of custody or in the courtrooms addressing how evidentiary conflicts are resolved during the process of trying a case it is clear that had some of the judges decisions gone the other way the defense would have stood a much better chance of acquittal.
It’s also embarrassing as a Wisconsinite that the prosecutor who went after Avery and his nephew has not been disbarred. If this were a Law & Order episode Jerry Orbach would be sitting in the gallery making jokes about the flaws we all know are inherent in the system, but the process of getting justice would self-correct because that’s how it’s supposed to work, however it doesn’t work that way. As many people watch this documentary it becomes apparent to them that this is not something that is simply going to go away. There was a clear bias from the police up to the district attorney and the judge, but no one was able to do anything. It’s an embarrassing thing to watch. I’m sitting there thinking that there has to be some way that these guys get a fair shake, but after watching how the prosecutor used the March confession of the boy to manipulate the press it was probably impossible for Avery to receive a fair trial in the state of Wisconsin. Why the prosecutor was not disbarred for trying a suspect in the media and thus denying his right to a fair trial is completely beyond me. This is the kind of rage that builds when you see something like this though. This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. An innocent guy shouldn’t go down twice because of some stupid teenage feud that a family had in the 1980’s.
One of the most damning statements made during the film was by Mr. Avery’s defense attorney who says: “I hope he’s guilty because I don’t want to think about what it means if he’s not.” That is an officer of the court. When you have people working in an established system saying things like: “people assume that if you’re innocent and you get a good lawyer that justice will prevail, but it doesn’t work like that” you’ve got to seriously re-evaluate. What you have in this case is one court covering up for another one and another one all the way up to the Supreme Court, which doesn’t even want to get involved. The lawyer who thought up the way to bring the case into federal court had the right idea. When you’ve got corruption that is so systemic your only chance is to go outside the system. Steven Avery has exhausted his appeals. He has no hope. Part of me feels like that defense attorney. I hope he is guilty because the idea of our criminal justice system being that corrupt is absolutely terrifying.
What sticks with people I think is the trial of the kid who clearly had diminished capacity. The kid was coerced into a confession and no one will even hear his appeal. On a very basic level, those are what you look for when you’re going to grant someone a new trial. If there’s been some systemic bias or flaw in the way a case was handled that’s what the appellate system is designed to fix yet no one was willing to stick their neck out for either of these guys because at the end of the day they all belong to the same club. They’re all a part of Wisconsin’s judicial system and it looks like a scam. When you’re watching this you’re waiting for the prosecutor to say: oh and by the way there’s this marvelous man here today named Charles Ponzi who’d like to talk to you about investment.
It was very troubling that even after the prosecutors whole sexting scandal made him resign that you still didn’t have people raising any questions in the system about his integrity. Lawyers openly joked that those were his ethics and that’s what other attorneys expected out of him. It’s interesting to me that we hold our private citizens to higher standards than we do our public officials. If there were an organization stealing your money day in and day out you wouldn’t accept a report from them that said they looked into it and you’re wrong. You’d expect something in the way of evidence and if they failed to give that to you then hopefully there was something else you could do. That’s not the case in these criminal proceedings. In something as cut and dry as justice there is far too much that is left up to chance. Whether that’s a judge ruling every single time against a defendant or a corrupt prosecutor or just bad evidence there ought to be some sort of truly independent person who can speak truth to power, but as is the case in so many aspects of American life we simply haven’t found a remedy for the serious problems that have come to infect our institutions.