Documentaries make a difference
First Serial, then The Jinx, and now Making a Murderer: We officially have a new genre on our hands, the long-form, deep-immersion, true-crime documentary that works itself into the courts – perhaps liberating an innocent from jail, or putting the guilty there at long last.
The ambition here is not to earn Emmys, but to achieve justice.
The decision to overturn Brendan Dassey’s 2007 conviction marks the third time in 18 months that a TV series or a podcast has played a decisive role in a major murder case. Dassey was convicted at age 17, on the basis of a confession browbeaten out of him by cynical detectives – a key scene in Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos’s Making A Murderer – despite his learning disabilities (IQ 70) and the unpardonable absence of an adult adviser during questioning. After the broadcast of Sarah Koenig’s podcast Serial, Adnan Syed – serving life for the 1999 murder of his 18-year-old ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee – was granted a retrial, following questionable cellphone evidence in the initial case, in June. With HBO’s The Jinx, the real estate heir Robert Durst, long held in suspicion after the 1982 disappearance of his wife and the 2000 murder of his friend Susan Berman – and acquitted for the 2001 murder of a neighbour – was arrested on the eve of the documentary’s final episode, in which he was caught muttering in the bathroom, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.” The innocent-man documentary has a vintage stretching back at least as far as Errol Morris’s 1988 documentary The Thin Blue Line, which secured the release of its wrongly convicted protagonist, Randall Dale Adams, after 12 years in a Texas jail. But this newer variety partakes of two other major influences: The Innocence Project and In Cold Blood. The Innocence Project, originally founded in 1992 after a study found that 70 percent of wrongful convictions were based on faulty eyewitness testimony, has greatly expanded with the advent of sophisticated DNA testing in the last 20 years.
It has freed 343 people, including 20 who served on death row, and done much to undermine confidence in certain verdicts.
Each of the three documentaries relies on a deep sense of legal nuance and a knowledge of procedural crime-solving (and its shortcomings). What they share with In Cold Blood is Truman Capote’s determination to burrow deep into the communities and mindsets of the accused and the deceased, as well as the courts and the police that chew them up. For Making a Murderer, the filmmakers spent almost 10 years travelling back and forth to the tiny Wisconsin town where the story unfolded over three decades. In that time, we see legal reversals and defeats, the waxing and waning of relatives’ confidence in their loved ones, and a deep understanding of the ramshackle, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, whiteworking-class universe of the accused – “Dickensian” is the word most critics used.
The documentary is not just an autopsy of a criminal case, but also a long sojourn in the Other America, usually invisible to film, television and those on the coasts.
The shopkeepers have been working their corner for nearly two decades.