Sherlock Ho(l)mes: Crime Documentaries, Jurification, and the Rise of the Armchair Detective
Phoebe Morton | February 2021
Serial killer Ted Bundy in court, ca. 1979
While Netflix keeps its viewing statistics very close to its chest and finding Twitter responses from the time of release proves difficult, it can be assumed that Making a Murderer was an incredible success. The series follows the story of Steven Avery. Avery, having been wrongfully imprisoned for eighteen years for attempted assault and murder, is exonerated and released in 2003. However, two years later he is charged with the murder of Theresa Halbach, with his nephew Brendan Dassey being charged as an accessory. Both are convicted. The first series, released in 2015, follows Avery’s first trial and his exoneration, along with the Avery/Dassey trial following the 2005 charge. The second series, released in 2018, follows the aftermath of both the documentary and the convictions, with new attorneys and appeals on the basis of coercion. The show presents the case particularly from the defense’s perspective.
As aforementioned, Netflix’s viewing figures are notoriously difficult to establish. While attempts were made by Adweek in 2016 to declare that, within around a month, Making a Murderer drew in 19 million viewers an episode, in 2018 Vanity Fair commented that the company responsible for these figures has been much doubted and has since shut down. Further complicating matters is access to Twitter analytics, particularly going all the way back to 2015, and the issue that not every person debating Making a Murderer on Twitter signed off with the hashtag. However, Liam Kennedy conducted research on Making a Murderer subreddits in attempting to gather information on the response from audiences. Kennedy analysed over 6,005 individual Reddit posts across 12 different forums.2 Whilst gaining some insight, Kennedy acknowledges that the nature of his research being via Reddit means he cannot account for “age, race, gender, income, educational level, prior victimisation, [and] prior contact with the criminal justice system” that might come into play in audience response to true-crime documentaries. From Kennedy’s analysis, he discovered that 434 of the posts involved comments claiming that Avery and/or Dassey had wrongly been caused harm by misconduct or incompetence.3 Only 12 posts revealed doubts that there had been any police corruption or prosecutorial misconduct at all. It is clear from Kennedy’s research, and also memories people have from Making a Murderer’s release that the series made many people incredibly opinionated and determined in these opinions, with only a limited few showing an awareness of this one-sidedness. Further evidence of the audience’s adamance in Avery’s innocence can be seen by the popularity of his Change.org petition. However, this responsibility to counteract or acknowledge one sidedness does not rest on the audience, but should be considered by the filmmaker.
George S. Larke-Walsh notes that Making a Murderer is an example of “the injustice narrative subcategory of the non-fiction true crime genre.”4 She further explains that injustice narratives can be split into two broad types “to tell the story of a case that remains unsolved, or to tell the story of a case that has been solved, but may have resulted in a wrongful conviction:" Making a Murderer clearly fits into the latter. The injustice narrative can be contrasted with the more traditional true-crime documentaries, focused simply on the narrative of the investigation, rather than some injustice. Examples include Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes or Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer.5 These might have their own failings, but it is the public involvement in the injustice narrative which is an important focus here. Injustice narratives are inherently emotional and persuasive, and serve an incredibly important social purpose. Aside from highlighting how these narratives motivate discussion surrounding the criminal justice system, Larke-Walsh proposes that one of the purposes of the injustice narrative is to “give the accused/convicted a voice and character beyond the crime” and to “humanize” them.
However, injustice narratives often follow a trial, and to persuade their audiences, often stylistically mirror a trial as well, presenting the audience with evidence and “cross-examining” evidence and witnesses via cut scenes. These narratives' inherent one-sidedness, combined with the supposed objectivity of the trial format, raise concerns that the audience might be misled in their perception of the actual judicial process.
Stella Bruzzi, borrowing from Jennifer Mnookin, applies the term “jurified” to true-crime documentary audiences, where the audience is invited to judge the subject’s “character, the evidence, the conflicting evidence and the verdict.”6 Similar to a jury, the audience are not experts in law or forensics, but lay-persons. Here the form of the documentary mimics a trial. However, it appears that not all audiences are aware of this comparison and process. Kennedy unearthed a comment on one Making a Murderer Reddit forum discussing the shortcomings of a jury system where “12 random people… that have no clue about forensic evidence and could be easily swayed by a charismatic lawyer or be biased from the media or be biased altogether from the start are asked to determine guilt”.7 There is an irony to this statement, as this is exactly what injustice narrative documentaries do by jurifying the audience. The “charismatic lawyer” is now the charismatic filmmaker.
The effect of this jurification, which is becoming increasingly prevalent as injustice narratives replace the objective crime documentaries of old, is that audiences are becoming increasingly sure in their ability to be jurors. While on one hand this might be seen as aiding civic participation, on the other hand jurification might be cultivating “arm-chair detectives”, under what Fuh refers to as “shared common social expectation of truth” that exists in society’s view of law and documentary alike.8 Individuals might also increasingly believe that they have been sufficiently educated on the legal process, trial, investigation, and evidence to arrive at a “just conclusion.”. The emerging popularity of “Unsolved Case File” games for people to do at home is an extension of this jurification stemming from true-crime documentaries.
Furthermore, a shortcoming of many injustice narratives is their one-sidedness. Greg Stratton argues that the boom of true-crime documentaries on streaming services and consequent discussion on digital platforms “enables the exploration of miscarriages of justice with greater nuance, intimacy and depth."9 However, these discussions cannot be so nuanced if the information many viewers take as gospel is one-sided. This is not to denounce one sided documentaries; bias can rarely be avoided. A decision to investigate a certain topic, case, or character intrinsically has many layers of bias behind it. However, an acknowledgement of bias as bias could possibly counteract any misrepresentations to the audience. Making a Murderer is an example of this. Bruzzi notes that the series takes sides quite clearly: the directors, Demos and Ricciardi, are obviously advocating for Avery’s innocence.10
However, the following question must be raised: how many viewers are aware they are being jurified? Further, how many viewers are aware that they are being inadequately jurified? A jury is never shown just one side of the story. True-crime documentaries and their audiences are being used as “the court of last resort”, but Kathryn Schulz comments in an article for The New York Times that this project is bound by “no rules of procedure, answerable to nothing but ratings, shaped only by the ethics and aptitude of its makers”.
Filmmakers in injustice narratives are perceived to have privileged access to the “truth”, yet this position of privilege feels exploited if viewers are not made aware of the position they are being put in as “jury”, and their subsequent right and duty to hear all sides in real cases. Hence why I urge audiences to be aware, and filmmakers to be responsible. This jurification, as demonstrated, has real potential effects on the quality and biasedness of our present legal system, by exposing viewers to an over-simplified, dramatized, and false conception of justice and the courts.
True-crime documentaries are entertaining, engaging and informative. However, current audiences are often being irresponsibly “jurified” by filmmakers so devoted to their cause that they willfully ignore the opposing side in their narratives. In response, the audience is entertained with a view of the court system that is disconnected from reality, which might prove detrimental to real jury performance in the future. Despite this, conversations about the justice system that these injustice-narrative, true-crime documentaries provoke are endlessly useful, namely in modifying the once-black-and-white attitude towards those accused or convicted of crimes. Thus it is filmmakers’ responsibility to convey that their documentary is not entirely representative of the judicial system, or else they risk enabling a generation of arm-chair detectives with a one-sided understanding of criminal justice.
opularity around true-crime documentaries has exploded in recent years. Classics such as The Thin Blue Line were released to much acclaim, but this did not mark the inception of the true-crime documentary or its success. On the other hand, Making a Murderer for many was the start of the new wave of popularity.1