By the time I received the fourth text asking if I had watched “Making a Murderer,” it was clear I needed to check out the Netflix series. Especially since only one of those four texts came from a friend who is also a fellow criminal defense lawyer. I love it when non-lawyers get interested in what happens inside our seemingly insular world and relish the opportunity to educate others about various realities within the criminal justice system – realities that millions of people will never experience firsthand. And watching this series made me realize that it isn’t just an opportunity each of us has to educate – each of us has an absolute responsibility to explain, to teach and to dismantle the mystery that is the criminal justice system to many.
I promise there are no spoilers in this post – just don’t look at the cover of People Magazine if you haven’t watched the series and you want to be surprised. I will simply say this: “Making a Murderer” is a shocking, raw look at how the criminal justice system can operate. If you are a criminal defense lawyer, you will nod, shake your head and at times yell out loud. You will watch things happen that you have experienced and tried to explain. You will identify with gut-wrenching moments of despair, helplessness and outrage. But anyone who watches the series cannot help but wonder how many of the twists and turns and apparent bad acts could actually happen.
As criminal defense lawyers, we have a unique insight into how the unthinkable can happen. We are often pushed into the role of amateur psychologist when we are reading through discovery, watching witness interviews or selecting a jury. We see human nature firsthand in some of the most intense situations imaginable – and those unimaginable, too. We understand that we are all human beings. Law enforcement, victims, defendants, prosecutors, ourselves. We understand in an intimate way how each of us sees the world through our own personal prism. The reality we know and inhabit is one in which we understand that each of us has certain ways in which we immediately judge people, ways in which we make assumptions, ways in which we shortcut our thinking process by using previous experiences as a guide, rather than using fact. To know that truth as dearly as we do is a privilege; it also creates a responsibility.
At dinner the other night with two non-lawyer friends, Karen and Steve, who had not yet seen the series but listened intently to our description of the basic details, Karen asked the obvious question when she inquired, “What can we do to change things? I mean, if this can really happen then what can we do?” There are reflexive answers, like make sure law enforcement is properly trained or create basic legal education classes about individual rights and how the system operates. But there are also answers, I think, that require us, as lawyers, to act. Not in a way that attacks law enforcement or reinforces stereotypes about hotheaded criminal defense lawyers, but in a thoughtful, honest manner. A manner that requires us to leave open the possibility our own view might be incorrect. Indeed, I am not sure whether my view of “Making A Murderer” is a fair one or whether I am allowing the series to confirm what I already believe. What I am sure of is this: the series raises significant questions that should not be left unaddressed. Questions about our system of justice and every player within that system. I wonder if we can we find ways to educate others about the system but take the personal out of it so that we are fulfilling our responsibility of being wise counselors to society at large?
I think we can. In Ta-Nehisi Coates’ powerful, recently published book “Between The World And Me,” he honestly and artfully discusses race and race relations. Not simple to do. Yet Coates illuminates the often divisive and uncomfortable topics by writing directly, frankly and without obvious judgment. He writes it like it is. “Making A Murderer” seems to have become such a cultural phenomenon that it can serve as a starting point for the “like it is” in the criminal justice system. Not like it is always, but certainly how it can be when human nature overwhelms. An example of how our weaknesses as humans can destroy the strength of what might be the best criminal justice system available. And who better to facilitate a discussion on what can we do to make our system be its best than those of us who work within the system every day?