Netflix documentary Making a Murderer when we noticed something. I’ll get to the something in a moment. If you haven’t seen Making a Murderer, chances are good you’ve heard about it.
It’s a ten-episode documentary that tracks the story of Steve Avery, who belongs to an extended family living in and around Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. The Avery clan comes from the wrong side of the tracks: a bad local reputation, many run-ins with the law, a history of black-sheep behavior—in short, the classic perception of poor white trash.
I will resist the temptation to provide a full account of the backstory or list the diverse cast of characters in this real-life drama (which has, to date, not been resolved). In brief, New York filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi read an account of Avery’s legal travails in The New York Times, which inspired them to create a documentary about the man’s sprawling tale of woe, of hopes dashed and raised and dashed again. A few networks passed on it before Netflix jumped at the chance to deliver the story to its millions of subscribers.
The documentary was made available December 18, 2015, and it soon exploded, as a simple Google search will show.
Over the course of ten episodes, we’re presented with this disturbing, often maddening, case a man with a 70-ish IQ who served eighteen years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit. Within two years of being exonerated in 2005 by DNA evidence—and with a $36 million civil suit pending against Manitowoc County—Avery was then promptly charged with the heinous murder of Teresa Halbach, a 25-year-old photographer whose charred remains were discovered at the Avery Salvage Yard. His mentally challenged 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, was also later charged following a confession (another controverted point) in which he says he helped his uncle rape and murder Halbach.
As the cliché goes, Steve Avery is no angel. He is a convicted burglar. He ran his cousin off the road in a fit of rage before threatening her with a shotgun. As a younger man, he set a cat on fire for jokes ‘n’ fun. Making a Murderer hides none of this.
But its purpose is not to establish him as someone you wouldn’t want your daughter to date. Rather, it investigates several very different, and unpopular, possibilities. Did the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Department frame Avery? Was incriminating evidence planted? Did the prosecution ignore other suspects who had motive and access to the victim? Or is the whole series one slick piece of anti-cop propaganda? This is a tiny sample of the questions raised by the un-narrated account, which cuts between court footage and interviews with many of the players.
One of these is acclaimed defense attorney Jerome Buting.
In one episode, Buting and his fellow defense attorney Dean Strang are seen strategizing at home about the case. This is where the “something” I mentioned earlier comes in: both men appear on screen with dark smudges on their foreheads.
“Did you see that?” my wife and I asked each other at the same time. “Are they a couple of Catholics, or what?” The next day, I contacted Buting and asked if he would be willing to talk about the case and about the role of, uh, that ash mark in his daily life. I got a quick reply in the affirmative.
Buting and Strang did, in fact, deliberately leave the ashes on (they had been in court all day, Ash Wednesday). My Catholic Answers Focus podcast this week features a robust conversation with Jerry Buting about how his Catholic faith inspires and supports his “vocation” (his word) as an attorney. He has lectured widely on the complexities of DNA and other forensic evidence, has handled many high-profile cases involving homicide and other grave crimes, and was designated as a Super Lawyer every year from 2006 to 2015.
But what he wanted to talk to me about was his reversion to the Catholic faith, the inspiration he draws from the life of St. Thomas More (the patron saint of lawyers), and how he has dealt with the fame and notoriety that has come with the instant popularity of Making a Murderer.
Viewers of the Netflix show are going to come to their own conclusions about the role played by selective editing in the show’s overall narrative. (I asked Buting all about this.) Deciding upon Steve Avery’s guilt or innocence is not what this is about. It’s about introducing you to a highly skilled defense attorney whose Catholic faith powers his legal reasoning.
Written by Patrick Coffin