I’ll admit, I’ve drunk the Making a Murderer Kool-Aid. As soon as I binge-watched it (on the day it came out), I became obsessed with all things Steven Avery, Brendan Dassey, and police corruption. The internet has become a breeding ground for theories and conspiracies about Avery and Dassey’s innocence (or guilt). I have my own theories about what happened, but I’ll save those for another day. But there’s something very important that MAM-obsessed viewers are missing about the documentary.
Yes, the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department may be corrupt. Yes, Prosecutor Ken Kratz may be a terrible human being. But this story—and documentary—is about so much more than conspiracy. It’s about an incredibly broken justice system that can work against anyone.
The key here is that both Avery and Dassey are poor. Not “I’m in my twenties and eating ramen” poor, but family historically, never-had-a-chance, desperately poor. In the justice system, that’s the worst thing you can possibly be.
Whether you’re guilty or innocent of a crime, the most important aspect of your criminal case (if you find yourself part of one) is a good defense attorney. Now, the U.S. Constitution guarantees you the right to counsel, no matter what your socioeconomic status, which is where public defenders come in. If you cannot afford an attorney, the state will appoint a defense attorney for you, free of charge. But this isn’t the perfect solution is sounds like, because public defenders are notoriously overworked and underpaid. This is not to say that public defenders are bad lawyers; on the contrary, they are very good lawyers that, in all reality, should be paid more and given way more credit. A lot of times, because of their caseloads, they just aren’t able to give some of their defendants the time it takes to build a strong legal defense, especially if their client is facing murder charges.
Because of money that was awarded to him from a lawsuit, Avery was able to hire excellent defense lawyers that gave him a fighting chance in his murder trial. Dassey, on the other hand, was a 16-year-old boy with no money, so he was doomed from the start. Anybody who watched the documentary can tell you that his first lawyer, Len Kachinsky, completely ruined his case, mainly because he thought Dassey was guilty. Kachinsky was a court-appointed public defender. The point is that Dassey could not afford to hire a lawyer that believed in his innocence; therefore, he was stuck with Kachinsky leading up to the trial (Kachinsky was later taken off the case at Dassey’s request, but the damage had already been done).
It’s been seen time and time again in our justice system that if you cannot afford strong and adequate counsel in a criminal case, the deck is stacked against you. Many times, prosecutors have a ton of resources at their disposal, significantly more than a public defender. Simply put, if you find yourself in the middle of a criminal case, and don’t have money at your disposal to defend yourself, you’re virtually screwed.
It shouldn’t be this way. If you’re innocent of a crime, you should be able to defend yourself in the best way you can, regardless of the type of attorney you can afford. Across the U.S., this isn’t the case. It’s an injustice that people are being wrongfully convicted of crimes because they can’t afford legal teams to fight for them in the way that is needed. But it happens every day.
What that leaves us is a justice system that is incredibly broken. Among all of its other lessons, that’s what we need to remember about this tragic—and cautionary—tale.
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