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The Netflix series "Making a Murderer" has set off a huge national debate over the guilt or innocence of Steven Avery. But the filmmakers insist they did not set out to prove that he did or did not commit the crime.
The increasingly rancorous argument is about the wrong thing. The documentary is not about the verdict; it's about the process. And despite backlash against their documentary the filmmakers stand by their contention that the legal process that sent Avery to prison for a murder was deeply flawed.
"We're documentary filmmakers," said Laura Ricciardi. "We're not prosecutors. We're not defense attorneys. We did not set out to convict or exonerate anyone. We set out to examine the criminal justice system and how it's functioning today."
Her partner, Moira Demos, rejected the idea that "Making a Murderer" is advocacy journalism.
"We are not taking sides. If anything, this is a social justice documentary," Demos said. "We chose Steven Avery because we thought his experiences offered a window into the system. We don't have a stake in his character in his innocence or guilt."
"Making a Murderer" recounts how Avery spent 18 years in prison for a sexual assault/attempted murder he did not commit. He was exonerated in 2003 and filed a lawsuit against the county and several county officials; in 2005, he was arrested for murdering another woman; in 2007, he was convicted and sent back to prison. "Making a Murderer" also chronicles the arrest and conviction of Avery's nephew Brendan Dassey, who was also charged in connection with the murder.
The series documents "a long list of irregularities" in the system from pretrial publicity to a police department that declared it had a conflict of interest but then investigated the case. And more.
"I can say if I was accused of a crime, this is not how I would want to be treated," Demos said. "I think there are so many questions about the reliability of this prosecution that it's hard to rely on these verdicts."
Critics also misunderstand what a documentary is. Like all documentaries, "Making a Murderer" has a point of view.
"We absolutely have a point of view," said Ricciardi. "My main take-away is that each and every one of us is entitled to justice that each and every accused, despite how they've been characterized or demonized, is entitled to justice."
"If you watch this series, I think it's clear that the American criminal justice system has some serious problems," Demos said, "and it's urgent that we address them. I don't think anything in the series is unique to Manitowoc County or Wisconsin. I think this is an American story. We just chose this as a litmus test as one example, but it's written large across our country."
Scott D. Pierce covers television for The Salt Lake Tribune . Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.