Armchair Jurors

Curator's Note

In Making a Murderer the infamous discovery of the Toyota car key in Steven Avery’s bedroom is presented in a way that directly accuses the Manitowoc police of planting evidence. This particular display of criminal injustice has influenced a variety of internet memes that poke fun at the scenario. The fact that Murderer has inspired internet humor does not diminish the concurrent petitions for a retrial and investigations into police corruption. The question of Steven Avery’s guilt is in fact secondary to the crimes committed by the Sheriff’s and the District Attorney’s offices in rushing to secure a conviction. This is important, because such a response suggests that audiences are as angry at the injustice for the victims as they are the accused. Injustice narratives like Murderer do not result in audiences simply rejecting law and order in favor of the criminal, they open discussions on the rights to a fair trial. These human rights also serve the victim and their families, and therefore is something that affects every citizen. A sense of shared values, or communal indignation at injustice is at the heart of the popularity of such narratives. Crime documentaries that engage audiences as pseudo jury members often encourage cultural discourses beyond the text. Murderer is rooted in the traditional style of true crime that encourages audience engagement based on simple right/wrong questions, but unlike regular true crime, these questions are aimed at the legal system rather than the accused. Murderer appeals to a viewers’ sense of injustice and has therefore encouraged a plethora of transmedial news reports, online discussions, and activism. These have kept the story and thus the documentary in the media spotlight. A focus on police and judicial procedures as flawed and based almost entirely on bureaucratic need, or an overzealous rush to judgment is at the heart of the narrative. Instead of police testimony used to explain a crime scene, interviews often incriminate the law enforcement officers. This encourages audiences to feel they are best placed to judge the evidence because they can ‘see’ the flaws in the system. Placing the legal system under scrutiny in such a way empowers audiences, because it suggests the following: ‘if the police or courts cannot be trusted to enact justice, then the public has a duty to intervene and restore fairness, security and common sense’ in society.

Comments

Staci Stutsman's picture

distrust in legal systems and police

Thanks for your post, George! It’s interesting to me that narratives such as Making a Murder and Serial are so popular at this historical moment, as I think it points to an anxiety keenly felt in today’s society. At a moment in which the public is poised to be especially distrustful of legal systems and the police in particular, narratives that put the justice system under scrutiny seem to carry an extra amount of weight.

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