FOUL PLAY?

How ob­ses­sion with true-crime shows can hurt vic­tims’ fam­i­lies.

Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - By JOR­DAN BAKER

She was 25, one of five chil­dren, and grew up in Calumet County, Wis­con­sin. She took pho­tos for a liv­ing. She loved karaoke. She coached her lit­tle sis­ter’s volleyball team. She had cropped brunette hair, brown eyes, and was 1.67m tall.

That’s all any­one but her friends and fam­ily know about the life of Teresa Hal­bach. But more than 20 mil­lion peo­ple know about her death. She was killed in 2005, and her charred bones were found in a res­i­den­tial burn pit.

The Net­flix se­ries about the trial of the man ac­cused of her mur­der, Steven Avery, has been one of the most talked­about true-crime doc­u­men­taries of the past decade. Mak­ing a Murderer has made the Hal­bach and Avery names fa­mous, and en­sured they will be for­ever linked in the pop­u­lar con­scious­ness.

That thought is no doubt deeply trau­matic for Hal­bach’s fam­ily, but the unhappy fact is that the true-crime genre is peren­ni­ally pop­u­lar, and at the core of each story is a vic­tim with­out a voice.

True crime gives us some of our big­gest-sell­ing books, our most-watched TV shows and our most talked-about films. Net­flix is pro­duc­ing a se­cond sea­son of Mak­ing a Murderer, and will soon air a film ex­am­in­ing the case of Amanda Knox (aka “Foxy Knoxy”), an Amer­i­can ac­cused, then ac­quit­ted, of mur­der­ing her room­mate while they were study­ing in Italy. “Was she a cold-blooded psy­chopath who bru­tally mur­dered her room­mate,” the me­dia re­lease asks, “or a naive study-abroad stu­dent trapped in an end­less night­mare?”

At the cen­tre of th­ese sto­ries is the vic­tim – the only per­son who can’t have their say.

Turn­ing pri­vate tragedy into pub­lic entertainment is not new, and has al­ways been con­tro­ver­sial. But in court­room par­lance, there is one pos­si­ble de­fence for drag­ging a griev­ing fam­ily through the agony of hav­ing their child’s death judged by the court of pub­lic opin­ion: jus­ti­fi­able cause.

That’s the is­sue raised by Mak­ing a Murderer: do the ques­tions asked about the fair­ness of the jus­tice sys­tem and the le­git­i­macy of Avery’s con­vic­tion out­weigh the rights of the vic­tim’s fam­ily to the clo­sure they re­ceived from the court’s orig­i­nal guilty ver­dict?

Avery’s lawyers, Dean Strang and Jerry But­ing, are bring­ing their speak­ing tour to Aus­tralia in Novem­ber.

They will an­swer ques­tions from the pub­lic, in­clud­ing, they ex­pect, that one.

Crit­ics ar­gue the se­ries was bi­ased in Avery’s favour, and sup­port­ers say it re­vealed an in­no­cent man was framed. But Strang be­lieves Mak­ing a Murderer is the tale of a flawed jus­tice sys­tem, told through the prism of Avery’s story.

“I feel deeply sorry that, un­avoid­ably, the vic­tim’s fam­ily car­ries the bur­den dis­pro­por­tion­ately of any ex­plo­ration of a non­fic­tional crime,” he tells Stel­lar. “I be­lieve this was not a voyeuris­tic ex­ploita­tion of a young woman’s death, but a good faith ex­plo­ration of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem’s re­sponse to that death and its ef­forts to mete out jus­tice to the men [Avery and his nephew, Bren­dan Dassey] charged with her mur­der.

“There’s an over­rid­ing im­por­tance in lift­ing the lid off the dark black box that is a court house, and let­ting the pub­lic see what hap­pens in po­lice sta­tions and court houses. Again the bur­den falls dis­pro­por­tion­ately on the vic­tim’s fam­ily, but there was a sharp dif­fer­ence be­tween this as an ex­plo­ration of the sys­tem af­ter a death, and an ex­ploita­tive voyeuris­tic treat­ment rev­el­ling in the fact of the death.”

Strang says only God knows whether Avery is guilty or not. “But you only have to be a rea­son­able ob­server to re­alise it wasn’t proven be­yond rea­son­able doubt. Whether he is in­no­cent or not, I do not know, but I do know he was en­ti­tled to a not guilty ver­dict if you were a rea­son­able ob­server of that trial. In that sense, I think it was a fail­ing of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem.”

True crime in­trigues us be­cause it’s about ac­tions and im­pulses most of us will, touch wood, never ex­pe­ri­ence. “There’s a part of us that’s fas­ci­nated by how some­one can do some­thing like that to some­one else,” says Katie Sei­dler, a foren­sic psy­chol­o­gist.

We aren’t too trou­bled by em­pa­thy, as we don’t iden­tify with the vic­tim – partly be­cause, “Peo­ple are afraid of be­ing vic­tims of crime, so they don’t con­nect with that, as it makes them feel vul­ner­a­ble or in­se­cure,” she says. “We fo­cus on other things – ‘How does some­one be­come a murderer?’ rather than, ‘How do we live when some­one has been bru­tally mur­dered?’”

An­other rea­son au­di­ences don’t get caught up in their em­pa­thy for the vic­tim is be­cause he or she is of­ten a oned­i­men­sional char­ac­ter. Like Hal­bach, we don’t tend to know much about them.

When we do know more, we are more likely to em­pathise, says Sei­dler. “Stephanie Scott [the NSW teacher mur­dered just days be­fore her wedding] is a re­ally strong pres­ence in the me­dia be­cause peo­ple can re­ally con­nect with her story. She is very per­son­alised. So is Wil­liam Tyrrell [the three-year-old ab­ducted two years ago]. A lot of other vic­tims are name­less, or iden­tity-less.”

Univer­sity of Syd­ney law pro­fes­sor David Hamer hasn’t seen Mak­ing a Murderer be­cause it feels too much like work – he spe­cialises in wrong­ful con­vic­tions. But he says there needs to be a bal­ance be­tween the rights of vic­tims’ fam­i­lies to a fi­nal ver­dict on one hand, and ef­forts to en­sure a cor­rect re­sult on the other.

He be­lieves that even in Aus­tralia – a sys­tem fairer on many counts than the US sys­tem that con­victed Avery – there is an em­pha­sis on fi­nal­ity over ac­cu­racy. “Yes, it would be up­set­ting for a vic­tim’s fam­ily not to have fi­nal­ity,” he says. “They think the right per­son is in prison, and then the whole thing is dragged up again. But they can’t have an in­ter­est in the wrong per­son be­ing in prison.

“You have to have fi­nal­ity. You have to pro­tect fi­nal­ity. You can’t have a trial ver­dict pro­vi­sional and open to re­view. But you have to bal­ance fi­nal­ity with the need of ac­cu­racy, to make sure the right re­sult is reached.”

Howard Brown, from VO­CAL, a sup­port group for the vic­tims of crime, agrees. It is up­set­ting for fam­i­lies to have the case brought up again, he be­lieves, but if it is in the pub­lic in­ter­est, and not done for sala­cious­ness alone, then most un­der­stand. “The pub­lic needs to know how the jus­tice sys­tem does, and some­times does not, work,” says Brown. True crime can also help vic­tims’ fam­i­lies raise aware­ness when a per­pe­tra­tor has not been caught.

If there is a ques­tion over the le­git­i­macy of a con­vic­tion, Brown says vic­tims’ fam­i­lies would not want the wrong per­son go­ing to jail. “They want the per­son who com­mit­ted a crime pun­ished, not just any­one,” he says. “The last thing they want is to be com­plicit in that mis­car­riage of jus­tice.”

Hal­bach’s fam­ily was in­vited to par­tic­i­pate in Mak­ing a Murderer, but de­clined. On the eve of its pre­miere, they is­sued this state­ment: “Hav­ing just passed the 10-year an­niver­sary of the death of our daugh­ter and sis­ter, Teresa, we are sad­dened to learn that in­di­vid­u­als and cor­po­ra­tions con­tinue to cre­ate entertainment and to seek profit from our loss.

“We con­tinue to hope that the story of Teresa’s life brings good­ness to the world.” Dean Strang and Jerry But­ing will speak at the Syd­ney Opera House on Novem­ber 3; QPAC, Bris­bane, on Novem­ber 6; and Hamer Hall, Mel­bourne, on Novem­ber 8.

“The vic­tim’s fam­ily car­ries the bur­den of any ex­plo­ration of a non­fic­tional crime”

PRIME­TIME CRIME (from top) Lawyers Dean Strang (left) and Jerry But­ing; Mak­ing a Murderer; Steven Avery; (op­po­site) mur­der vic­tim Teresa Hal­bach.

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