Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” swept up audiences with the story of Steven Avery, who had previously been exonerated for a crime after spending 18 years in prison, and Brendan Dassey, his nephew, as murder suspects in the killing of Teresa Halbach in 2005. The series brought to the fore questions about the tactics used by law enforcement and the prosecution. But the impact of the Netflix series went beyond stunning audiences and generating a White House petition for the release of Avery.
Steven Drizin, who works at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth at Northwestern Pritzker School of Law, is Dassey’s current lawyer. [Dassey was convicted of murder, among other charges, in 2007 when he was 17.] Drizin believes he knows why the series has struck a chord with millions of viewers. “I think the series has really opened people’s eyes to just how overzealous law enforcement can be in their efforts to gain a conviction at all costs,” he says.
For Dassey’s case in particular, Drizin says, it “has raised serious concerns about how police officers interrogate suspects, particularly youthful suspects.” The series has also served to “educate people about the problem of false and coerced confessions.” Not only that, but it has also called into question whether “police officers and prosecutors in the zeal to win cases are willing to trample on suspects’ basic constitutional rights, even to go so far as to plant evidence.”
On the flipside, while the series has created clouded perspectives about law enforcement, it has uplifted certain areas of the legal system.
“For the first time, in my lifetime, two of the heroes are criminal defense attorneys — [Steven Avery co-counsels] Dean Strang and Jerry Buting. They are being praised for fighting like hell on behalf of a client who was accused of committing the most awful of crimes,” Drizin says. “You don’t see defense attorneys getting that kind of acclaim very often.”
Drizin thinks that the overall impact of the series has created a chance for Dassey.
“The fact that so many people are outraged by what they saw gives me hope that this could be a real opportunity for change,” says Drizin.