Crixeo: The U.S. Criminal Justice System


As Seen on TV: The U.S. Criminal Justice System

Bertolt Brecht is quoted as saying, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” In terms of television, one could argue that first-time filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Riccard achieved this with their award-winning hit Making a Murderer. As many of you know (nearly 20 million people binged on the 10-part miniseries within 30 days), this unflinching documentation of our broken criminal justice system in action tells the story of a man named Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey as they’re devoured by “the machine.”

Granted, this criminal justice TV series covers only one incident in middle America — Manitowoc County, Wisconsin — but the entire system comes across seared by the microscope, its failings all too obvious in this context. You walk away from this show with a lump in your throat and that heavy sinking feeling in your gut. Whether you believe Avery and Dassey to be guilty or innocent, you can’t help but be changed by this story as you watch it unfold. Now you know there’s a problem, and it’s not so simple to forget it. Such is the role of art in culture — not only to not hold up the mirror but to drive the message home.

Of course, America’s broken criminal justice system is no secret. We all seem to know justice in this country can be blinded by both power and money, but for many Americans it appears to be on such a huge and macro level in contrast to our daily lives. For some of us, this problem seems so far away. Untouchable, even. A world and a half away from home. But what Making a Murderer accomplishes is that it brings the concept to our level — to our communities. Injustice could be taking place right under your nose. Would you even notice it? What would you do if you did? Even worse, what if you found yourself trapped in the same sticky web? What then?

The Avery family is comprised of simple people. They are not perfect by any means (but “cast the first stone,” right?). However, I can’t shake the rotten knowledge that our justice system has failed them. I stared at my TV wondering, “Who is looking out for them?” And really, who is looking out for the most vulnerable in our society? Apparently not the criminal justice system. These people never had a chance.

Undoubtedly, that’s the bucket of ice water the documentarians had planned for me — for all of us — to experience. It’s so easy to get lost in the noise of the media, all of those perfectly polished talking heads, but when was the last time you heard a pundit or a reporter tell a story about the little guy or the average person without many connections or much education or wealth? Maybe it takes an artist to notice.