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"Making a Murderer" Highlights Pitfalls of Justice System

Steven Avery was ultimately found innocent of a crime he'd been arrested for in 1985. This is the 1985 mugshot. (Manitowoc County Sheriff's Dept./Wikipedia Commons)
Steven Avery was ultimately found innocent of a crime he'd been arrested for in 1985. This is the 1985 mugshot. (Manitowoc County Sheriff's Dept./Wikipedia Commons)
February 3, 2016

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - The Netflix documentary series "Making a Murderer" might be making a more sympathetic juror. That's the opinion of experts including Mark Rabil, director of the Innocence and Justice Clinic at the Wake Forest School of Law. The 10-part series was filmed over 10 years.

It profiles Steven Avery, charged with murder in 2005 after filing a lawsuit against the jurisdiction that convicted him of an unrelated crime, for which he was exonerated after 18 years. Rabil says Avery's experience within the system isn't unique.

"For a long time now, there really has not been a presumption of innocence, in this state or in this country, and that's made very clear in Making a Murderer," says Rabil. "Once the system sets its sights on you and charges you, it becomes extremely difficult to get a fair trial."

Avery is serving a life sentence for the 2005 murder. While critics of the documentary claim it ignores some evidence in the murder case, his attorney insists Avery is innocent and plans to use additional forensic testing to prove it. Avery and other family members allege he was framed by members of a county sheriff's department in Wisconsin, which he was suing for his wrongful conviction after a 1985 arrest.

Avery, like many who face criminal charges, reportedly lacked the money to fight his charges. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, about 90 percent of people on death row could not afford to hire lawyers when they were tried. Rabil says what makes the series unique is its length and the frank interviews with Avery's family members.

"To be able to spend the time with the families of Mr. Avery, it really gives people a feel for what we as criminal defense lawyers see all the time - the pain and the agony, and the frustration of just basically trying to get information, and trying to get fairness," Rabil says.

In North Carolina, research from Michigan State University has also found racial bias in sentencing, specifically in death-penalty cases. In 2009, state lawmakers passed the Racial Justice Act, allowing death-row inmates who could prove race was a factor in jury selection to have their sentences converted to life in prison without parole. That law was overturned in 2013.

Stephanie Carson, Public News Service - NC