The series “Making a Murderer” on Netflix has brought out several issues that defense lawyers deal with on a daily basis. While Steven Avery’s case is very unique there are parts of the case that apply to most criminal investigations.
The case highlights how much the judicial system relies on police work with little to no checks and balances. Most officers are good and trustworthy people, but even good people make unintentional mistakes. The defense is always behind the eight ball in criminal investigations. People accused of crimes do not have criminal defense lawyers on retainer who can jump into action at a moment’s notice. Defense lawyers are normally brought on weeks if not months after the crime. This ties their hands in regards to doing an independent investigation. All evidence collected and analyzed is done by the police and various government agencies.
This case reminded me of Walter Ellis, who was convicted of killing multiple women in Milwaukee. His identity was unknown for years because of a DNA screw up. He committed more murders after he should have been locked up. There were poor checks on the government agency handling the DNA and it took a large public case to get reform. In fact, in Ellis’ case, three different men had been arrested, tried and two convicted of homicides that it later turned out Ellis had committed. This is inconceivable but true. (In fact, one of the men wrongfully convicted of a homicide that Ellis actually committed was named William Avery.) This goes to show that our justice system, while one of the best in the world, still is far from perfect. The government can get convictions in questionable cases.
One underlying theme in the series is mental health. The mental health of Mr. Avery and his nephew is frequently discussed. Many people who commit serious crimes have some form of mental health needs which are not being addressed. Mr. Avery’s nephew clearly had trouble understating what was going on and was easily manipulated. His intelligence and personality is not much different than most juveniles in the system. This has to be carefully considered by the defense attorney at each stage of the criminal process. Was the defendant’s statement involuntary? Do they have the mental capacity to help in their defense? Would they be believable on the witness stand? How will their personality during a video interrogation or on cross-examination be perceived by a jury? There are all tough issues a defense lawyer needs to consider and the public needs to be aware of these issues.
Finally, the documentary also highlights the power of a good defense attorney. Even though the outcome may have not been in their favor, the attorneys were able to put on a great defense despite the mountain of evidence initially perceived against Mr. Avery. An experienced attorney can make a difference. Not every defendant is innocent, but every defendant should be entitled to a fair, equitable, and just process.
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