This isn’t an article about whether the two men featured in the documentary, ‘Making a Murderer’ are guilty or innocent. While I do have strong feelings concerning the handling of the criminal cases of both Steven Avery and his Nephew Brendan Dassey, I would prefer to focus on something different. In this article, I’m choosing to focus on something very positive that came from the documentary.
One thing that the documentary featured was how Steven Avery was convicted of rape, in spite of his innocence. Examples of these miscarriages of justice happen too frequently and often fail to get the media attention that they deserve. How often? Well, in a report just released, a record breaking number of convicted felons were exonerated in 2015. Most were serving significant prison time for crimes that they had nothing to do with.
According to the report, created by the National Registry of Exonerations at the University of Michigan Law School, 149 people were exonerated last year. Each one served an average of 15 years in prison prior to being released. Of the 149 who were falsely accused, 54 were serving time for murders that they didn’t commit. Five of those exonerated were on death row, awaiting their date with the death chamber.
The report reveals that more than two-thirds of those wrongly convicted were minorities, including half who were black. Twenty-seven of those exonerated had falsely confessed to their crimes. That group consisted of primarily children and/or the mentally handicapped.
One of the exonerated, William Vasquez, was falsely convicted of arson that resulted in the death of a mother and five children back in 1981. Vasquez, who was cleared in December, served 31 years in prison before being released. He was convicted in spite of having an alibi witness who testified at his trial. The chief accuser recanted her testimony shortly before her death in 2014. Another man, Ricky Jackson, was exonerated after serving thirty-nine years in prison.
One revelation that I find most alarming is that approximately 28 percent of all exonerations last year came from one single prosecutors office, in Harris County, Texas. The problems with their cases only came to light after they chose to vigorously examine prior convictions from their jurisdiction. They uncovered many false convictions as a result of their prosecutors previously using aggressive tactics, which included threatening defendants with lengthy prison terms in order to secure guilty pleas. That behavior led to many of the accused to plead guilty to crimes that never even occurred. That office has since made major changes to how they do things, hoping to decrease the chances that these false convictions will occur again in the future.
What ‘Making a Murderer’ has done, amongst many other things, is provided increased interest in the discussion of false convictions in the Criminal Justice System and has resulted in people taking more seriously those who are alleging that they are innocent. What remains unclear is how frequently these false convictions are occurring. To believe that all those who have been falsely convicted have managed to find their way out of prison after exoneration is being intellectually dishonest. The 149 who were fortunate may only represent a small portion of those who were falsely convicted. Without question, wrongful convictions remain a significant problem that must remain of primary importance.
The documentary has also sparked an increase in pubic debate concerning the troubling tactics that many prosecutors have engaged in to secure convictions. With only six percent of criminal cases ever being tested at trial (the rest take plea bargains), it’s hard to know whether the facts support guilt since so many have never been tested at trial in the first place.
So we are clear, I am not suggesting Avery and/or Dassey are innocent of murder. Nor am I suggesting that they are guilty. That’s a different discussion for a different day. What is clear, is that ‘Making a Murderer’ has added new life to the discussion about criminal convictions and whether more innocent folks than previously believed are being sent to prison for crimes that they did not commit.