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How our true crime obsession brings up questions of justice vs. truth


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The judicial system is one that's based on objective truth - but can justice still be served in its absence?

Documentaries like Making a Murderer and thriving popularity of the podcast Serial mean that true crime continues to be both a great source of entertainment and a hot topic of reflection in our society. While shows of this nature often leave viewers in a heated debated between “guilty” and “innocent”, they also offer a platform to have wider discussions about our legal system, posing questions like whether or not justice relies on truth in order to be served.

One of the most thought-provoking aspects of Making a Murderer is how it turns Steven Avery, the story’s objective antagonist who’s been sentenced to life for the murder of Theresa Halbach, into someone that you might consider rooting for. The narrative of the series has a bias, sure, but this also serves to show that very little is black and white, even in a legal world that seeks to make life-changing decisions based on objective truths.

Image courtesy of Netflix

The term justice is thrown around a lot in these types of shows, but for starters what really is it? In the sense of the courts, justice is defined as fairness or moral rightness, but even that definition has several angles to it.

In the case of Making a Murderer, the courts deemed that Steven Avery was guilty of murder, and as such sentenced him to a life in prison. This is meant to give justice to the family of the victim, as having a name and face for the crime may help find peace. It also serves justice to both Steven, the convicted perp, as well as the victim of the crime.

Where this idea of justice gets interesting is when you start to consider if the decision that Steven Avery is guilty is the right one. Avery, along with the majority of evidence in the show, insists on his innocence, even showing a motive for why certain parties may want to frame him. How does the possibility of him not being guilty affects the perception of justice?

When looking through the scope of justice as moral rightness, it’s hard to see Steven Avery sitting behind bars for life as just if it turns out he didn’t commit the crime. Accordingly, one would imagine that Theresa Halbach wouldn’t find justice in an innocent man spending his life behind bars for the crimes committed on her.

The most interesting aspect of justice and its reliance on truth in the Theresa Halbach murder case is seen when observing Theresa’s family over the course of the trial. As aspects of the case are brought into question, like the possibility of coerced confessions and planted evidence, their sense that justice is served by Avery being sentenced to life remains unwavering. You’d imagine that the family who’s lost someone to murder would want to make sure the right person is convicted of the crime, but it’s interesting to see the Halbachs more interested in letting the justice that they’ve been given settle than continuing to search for truth in now murky waters.

As stated, Making A Murderer definitely shows a bias, so maybe the Halbachs have seen evidence that wasn’t a part of the documentary, but the quote below, taken from a press conference with Theresa’s brother, gives credence to the idea that their sense of justice isn’t necessarily based on evidence, but maybe the desire to close the grieving process.

“To me, if this case goes to trial, I think if you put the tape of his [Steven’s nephew], the confession, in the VCR, or DVD player, and play it, there’s our case right there.”

A reporter asks “Have you seen the confession, Mike?” 

The answer? “No, I have not.”

It’s easy to see how the grief of losing a family member yearns for answers, but it’s also hard to digest the magnitude of that feeling unless you’re unfortunately put in that position. An eye-opening glimpse at how overwhelming a situation like this ends up coming from a response to a Reddit AMA request with Young Lee,  whose sister’s murder was the subject of the first season of the podcast Serial.

”I won’t be answering any questions because... TO ME ITS (sic) REAL LIFE. To your listeners, it’s another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren’t there to see your mom crying every night... and going to court almost every day for a year seeing your mom weeping, crying, and fainting. You don’t know what we went through.”

It’s apparent that justice for the family means more than putting the perpetrator behind bars. It’s also about finding closure to a chapter, one that nobody ever asks for or expects but is guaranteed to push a family well beyond their limits. With this in mind, you can start to see how evidential truth isn’t the only driving factor in Theresa’s family feeling like they’ve obtained justice.

For Steven Avery, however, the objective truth is paramount in receiving justice one way or another. For him, it’s the hinge that determines the rest of his life. It means either freedom or incarceration. Vindication from, or confirmation of being a monster. So while Theresa’s family may not rely on resolving remaining questions to confirm the truth to feel that they’ve found justice, it’s apparent that Steven does.

The most important aspect of justice being served in this, or really any criminal case, is in regards to the victim. The unfortunate truth is that Theresa Halbach was murdered, and although I have no standing to believe she was for or against the idea of “an eye for an eye”, it makes sense that she’d want whoever did this to her to at least be put in a position where they can’t continue to harm others.

Image courtesy of Netflix

If you’ve seen Making a Murderer, you’ll recall that the murder of Theresa Halbach wasn’t the first serious crime that Steven Avery has insisted on being wrongly convicted of. In 1985 he was arrested for the brutal sexual assault of a local woman. After 18 years of appeals and insisting that they had the wrong guy, DNA evidence finally exonerated Avery. When the victim in the case, Penny Beernstein, found out that the wrong person had been serving time she said “the day I learned I had identified the wrong person was much worse than the day I was assaulted. My first thought was, I don’t deserve to live.” She may have felt that justice had been served during the 18 years that someone was behind bars, but it goes without saying that the feeling was wiped clean once new evidence was available. Simply put, justice for a victim isn’t found in victimising another innocent person.

What Making a Murderer does is paint a picture of Steven Avery’s conviction in the murder of Theresa Halbach as an implied truth, rather than an objectively proven one. As the family of a lost loved one, with the world crashing down around you, it’s understandable how an implied truth can be enough to find justice - but for those whose lives depend on an accurate conviction, the direct correlation between truth and justice couldn’t be more important.

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