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MAKING A MURDERER: Is Our Criminal Justice System Broken?

By the folks at Betters Weinandt, Jan 5 2016 08:22PM

The holidays have once again come and gone. This year I engaged in what can only be referred to as “binging.” However, unlike the classic binging that involves eating sweets and treats until my pant button quakes, this year my binging took a different form – Netflix. I had heard about the “Making a Murderer” documentary on Netflix, and when I initially decided to take a look (at about 5:00 p.m. on a quiet night), I had no idea that I would be crawling to my bed at 3:00 a.m. with bloodshot eyes and a head full of questions.

If you are familiar with “Making a Murderer,” than you are no doubt aware of the firestorm of online commentary it has garnished – mostly by spectators with little to no knowledge of the case beyond what was presented in the Netflix documentary, and perhaps with some “rebuttal” commentary (supportive of the prosecution) that has surfaced since the show was released in late 2015.

If you haven’t watched “Making a Murderer,” you should. After taking it in, you may be distracted with the question of the guilt or innocence of those accused of the crimes. But the primary issue of the documentary is not whether the defendants are guilty. Rather, the question that lingers far beyond the scope of the specific crime addressed in “Making a Murderer” is this: Is our criminal justice system broken?

Be they a judge, attorney, defendant, or other participant, anyone who has had intimate dealings with the criminal justice system has pondered whether the system is broken. After all, attorneys and judges quietly understand that individuals are convicted of crimes they did not commit on a daily basis – and individuals are also acquitted of crimes they did in fact commit. Suffice it to say that with rare exception, these cases do not attract attention from documentary filmmakers.

Nonetheless, although individuals are regularly convicted of crimes they did not commit, the vast majority of individuals convicted of crimes in our system are in fact guilty. As a result, our system functions everyday with the hope that a reasonable (although admittedly imperfect) balance has been struck between these two undeniable truths: Some are convicted although they did not commit the crime, but most of those convicted did in fact commit the crime. So does that mean the system is broken?

In the aftermath of “Making a Murderer,” I had the opportunity to listen to an interview of one of the primary attorneys from the show, Dean Strang. One of the questions posed to him was “is our system broken?” Mr. Strang explained that, to the degree that all human undertakings are “broken,” our criminal justice system should similarly be considered broken – a premise that I believe most would accept as accurate, myself included.

But in that moment, the following question came to me: Would the Wright Brothers have considered their initial unsuccessful machines to have been “broken” merely because they did not achieve that which was the goal (controlled fixed-wing flight)? The answer is unequivocally “no.” In fact, in order for a machine to be “broken,” the machine must first have worked as intended – otherwise the machine is merely a work in progress. To the same extent, our criminal justice system must be viewed as a work in progress rather than a system that worked but is now broken.

Now, the Wright Brothers had an easily identified goal: if the machine flew, it worked. As it pertains to our criminal justice system, it is important to understand that the “goal” of the criminal justice system differs depending on whom you ask. Some would say that the goal is the illusive quest for perfection in determining truth. Some would say that the goal of our system is the pragmatic hope of trying to be fair, regardless of who the defendant may be.

Alas, quit asking if our system is broken. The system is incomplete and hasn’t yet had the opportunity to be broken. Rather, ask yourself if we are adequately dedicated to the ongoing commitment to assist, nurture, and help this “work in progress” to achieve that which it is so intended to achieve. If we lose this ongoing dedication, than the system isn’t broken – it simply isn’t working and never will work.

To be clear, this dedication is messy. It requires us to hold accountable all of those involved in our system - attorneys, judges, defendants, and law enforcement alike. It requires us to admit our own insecurities and explore the reality that we too often claim to know something that we do not know simply to make ourselves feel better – a mental self-preservation if you will. It requires us to admit that as a society we are capable of committing unfathomable atrocities while ignoring it because facing our atrocities is horribly inconvenient. It requires us to accept that as a society, we find such entertainment in assault, rape, and murder, that we easily sacrifice truth if it allows us to perpetuate a more exhilarating fictional narrative. Ultimately, recognizing or questioning our prejudice is not enough – we must actively and aggressively engage and conquer our prejudice as we would approach our most threatening enemies.

In the meantime, I want to share a paraphrase of a comment from Dean Strang that truly resonated with me. Justice is not so much a commitment to determining the truth. Rather, Justice is the unwavering commitment to principles of fairness to be used when faced with uncertainty, regardless of how unpleasant you may find the defendant.

How committed are you to applying principles of fairness to those who you most loathe?


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