Making A Murderer? How about a Better Criminal Justice System

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?

Blog by criminal defense attorney Sonya Pfeiffer, partner at Rudolf Widenhouse www.RudolfWidenhouse.com. Feel free to send feedback to Sonya at spfeiffer@rudolfwidenhouse.com.

 

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Protecting Your Rights

As members of the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, we are faithful advocates for our clients and defenders of rights for those journeying through various stressful and difficult periods in life. Here’s what informed my decision to make this my profession, my calling:

Like many, my “aha” moment came at a young age while watching a rerun of the black and white movie, To Kill A Mockingbird. In 1961, it won a Pulitzer Prize, and in 1962, was made into an Academy Award-winning film. Not surprising, it has never gone out of print.  I gave a copy as a gift to one of my own children this past Christmas.

Gregory Peck’s performance as Atticus Finch reminded me of my own Dad in his style of teaching truthfulness and compassion.  Both explained things in a way that helped a child understand the difference between right and wrong.  “There’s been some high talk around town to the effect that I shouldn’t do much about defending this man,” Atticus tells his daughter, Scout, in the 1962 film adaptation. “If I didn’t, I couldn’t hold my head up in town. I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do somethin’ again.”[1]  Wow, what a great way to explain the concept of right and wrong to a child!  Example is a grand teacher.

The opportunity to teach my brother and me about standing up for what is right and to not be led by a crowd in the bullying or taunting of any group was on point as the school system in which we were enrolled had just begun desegregation.  Looking back, the lesson was one of not dehumanizing any person, including myself, by being a part of that crowd, and not to dehumanize others by making them less than the humans they are.  Compassion and fairness have stuck with me to this day and I hope to never lose those gifts.

The uniqueness of America is that its laws and Constitution were designed to protect the individual from other individuals, from the state, and from the mob. No other nation or kingdom had ever put the individual above all.

NCAJ members, as Plaintiff’s counsel in civil matters and Defense attorneys in Criminal matters, help people resolve controversies between individuals and corporations or between the government (The State) and its citizens. We protect individuals sometimes against the “collectives”.  Our profession demands our contributions to the protection of our fellow human beings and their rights garnered within the legal framework of our Constitution,  the  Bill of Rights, our State’s Constitution and the Common Law.  As a member of the legal team with Hyler & Lopez, P.A., we have the opportunity to help protect the rights of those accused in civil or criminal actions by defending and protecting the accused by zealous representation and mounting the best defense possible.

Through membership with the North Carolina Advocates for Justice, we touch the lives of North Carolinians through pro bono service, participating in continuing legal education, and by advocating for the rights of workers and families at the legislature.  We stand out in our communities as leaders of civic education and defenders of justice; after all, we are Advocates.

This article is contributed by Susan Sherman Gaddis, a Paralegal IV.  Ms. Gaddis holds undergraduate degrees in Political Science and Philosophy from UNCA and Associates degree in Paralegal Studies/Constitutional Law from Fayetteville Technical Community College, and the pre-law program of Campbell University.  She is employed with the law firm of Hyler & Lopez, P.A., in Asheville, North Carolina.

[1] To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee, 1960.