‘Making a Murderer’ Drew on a Long Cinematic Legacy

In December of 2015, the Netflix original series Making a Murderer was made available to stream. It became an instant sensation, permeating pop culture on every level, from references on pro baseball game Jumbotrons to mentions during late night talk shows, as well as many, many memes. The overriding sentiment seemed to be one of shock that such blatant miscarriages of justice had taken place. People seemed bewildered that this wasn’t just a case of mistakes made by police or eyewitnesses, but a seemingly intentional conviction of people not necessarily responsible for the crime. Frankly, I was shocked that they were so shocked.

I had to take a step back and remind myself that not everyone seeks out stories of this nature. I discovered certain films in my early teens which made me cognizant of the fact that sometimes law enforcement works to intentionally railroad people into conviction, despite evidence to the contrary. Of course, it is not always a case of malicious police and prosecutors. In some instances, law enforcement works with the best information available to them and, even with good intentions, ends up sending the wrong person away. Making a Murderer is hardly the first film to shine a light on these types of cases. While many people think there’s a good chance that Steven Avery, the subject of Making a Murderer, may indeed have committed a crime, I maintain that there was clearly a mountain of reasonable doubt and misconduct in building the case against him. In the case of his nephew, Brendan, who was also convicted, I’ve yet to see or hear a shred of convincing evidence against him.

Making a Murderer was far from the first film to explore this subject. If you were one of those who was shocked by it, or are looking for something in a similar vein to watch, read on.

In the Name of the Father (1993)

Image: Universal Pictures

Image: Universal Pictures

This 1993 film directed by Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot, The Boxer) recalls the wrongful imprisonment of The Guildford Four and The Maguire Seven for the Guildford Pub bombings of 1974. The story is told through the eyes of Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis, nominated for an Oscar for his performance), a wayward young Irish lad who mostly just wants to party and have a good time. He and three friends, (Paul Hill, Carole Richardson, and Patrick Armstrong) who were all living in England at the time of the bombing, are arrested and held on suspicion of terrorism. A key factor in this story is that recent anti-terrorism measures in England allowed the police to hold suspects for up to a week without charging them. This gives them plenty of time to coerce confessions, by various methods, out of all four.

Not only are these four sent to prison, but the police find a way to involve their families as well, including Gerry’s father, Giuseppe (Pete Postlethwaite, also nominated for an Oscar). These family members, who come to be known collectively as The Maguire Seven, were arrested for the handling of explosives involved with the bombings. The Guildford Four were given life sentences; The Maguire Seven received anywhere from four years (for a 14-year-old boy) to fourteen years. Human rights solicitor Gareth Peirce (Emma Thompson, also Oscar-nominated), among others, works to pick apart the government’s case in an attempt to free those convicted.

The film has drawn criticism for changing significant events and characters, which is valid. However, it also leaves out numerous facts and details (found in Gerry Conlon’s autobiography, Proved Innocent, upon which the screenplay is based) which make the police and English legal system look even worse than it already does here. However, the basic, indisputable fact remains true that eleven people were physically, mentally, and verbally abused in police custody and convicted of crimes with which they had no connection.

Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001)

Image: HBO

Image: HBO

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Oscar-winning feature documentary tells the story of 15-year-old Brenton Butler’s terrifying brush with the law. After a 65-year-old woman is shot dead in front of her husband at a Ramada Inn, Jacksonville police pick up Butler while he’s walking down the street several miles away. The police candidly admit that Butler was only picked up because he fit the description of a “young, black male,” even though he was 5-10 years younger than the initial description given by the witness. Butler agreed to help out the police officers when they approached him, and when he accompanied them to the Ramada Inn, the husband of the victim immediately stated, “That’s him.” The officer present was surprised and asked the man if he was absolutely sure that Butler was the one responsible. The man replied, “I wouldn’t send an innocent man to jail.”

Whether he intended to or not, this witness was attempting to do just that. Thankfully, Butler’s public defense team of Ann Finnell and Patrick McGuinness don’t take their jobs lightly. They immediately see through the poor police work, physical and mental abuse that detectives enacted against Butler, and a number of other issues with the case. While I don’t want to give too much away if you have plans to watch this one, I’ll just state that it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the films on this list for one obvious reason, but I think it belongs here nonetheless.

Director Lestrade would later make the long-form television documentary, The Staircase (2004), which laid the blueprint for shows like The Jinx and Making a Murderer.

After Innocence (2005)

Image: New Yorker Films

Image: New Yorker Films

The Innocence Project, a national organization which dedicates itself to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through the use of DNA, played a role in Steve Avery’s story. He was championed by the local chapter, which helped uncover evidence leading to his release, only to later be removed from their web site and ignored when he was re-arrested for murder.

After Innocence focuses on multiple wrongfully convicted men and what life is like after they have been proven innocent, often with the help of The Innocence Project. As this film reveals, it is sadly not an easy road for many of those who are the victims of negligent, malicious, or otherwise lackluster law enforcement work. Many of those who are responsible for the wrongful convictions face few consequences for their actions, and the wrongfully imprisoned sometimes don’t receive so much as an apology for their trouble.

Presumed Guilty (2008)

In Mexico, the presumption of innocence isn’t a luxury enjoyed by the populace. Instead, if you are arrested and charged with a crime, you then go to trial with the onus upon you to prove yourself innocent. The unlucky soul in this film is Toño, a flea market computer technician who is picked up by the police for murder. In spite of concrete physical evidence in his favor and numerous people who provide an alibi for Toño, he is convicted and sent to prison. The directors of this documentary are openly on his side, using this film to reveal the flaws and contradictions inherent in Mexico’s judicial system.

Witch Hunt (2009)

Image: MSNBC Films

Image: MSNBC Films

This documentary by Dana Nachman and Don Hardy Jr. shines a light on the astonishing cases of three dozen people who were falsely accused and convicted of child molestation, torture, and using children in satanic rituals in the early 1980s. The Kern County, CA District Attorney, Ed Jagels, had run his campaign on being “tough on crime” and wanted to make good on this. His case against all of the parents relied on no physical evidence and was solely prosecuted on the testimony of various children, including some who took the stand against their own parents. These kinds of testimonies are familiar to anyone who knows about similar cases from the 80s and early 90s, where social workers and untrained detectives essentially fed the stories they wanted to young children, who would eventually relent and agree with them. Many of the children who testified came forward years later, once they realized what had really happened.

No one was interested in hearing that something didn’t happen, however. It took years and the eventual intervention of our old pals at The Innocence Project to get things moving in the direction of true justice being served.  

Paradise Lost 1, 2, & 3 (1996, 2000, 2011)

Image: HBO Films

Image: HBO Films

One of the most well-publicized cases of wrongful imprisonment is this trio of documentary films by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky. The first film follows the trial of three teenagers – who would come to be known as the West Memphis Three – accused of killing three young Boy Scouts in the Robin Hood Hills of West Memphis, Arkansas. The second focuses on their attempts at appeals and the bizarre behavior of the stepfather of one of the murdered boys. The third and final film, which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, follows further appeals and the national groundswell of support to free the young men, now in their 30s, from prison.

One aspect of Making a Murderer which really stunned many people was the blatantly coerced confession from Steven Avery’s mentally deficient 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey. Again, this wasn’t my first rodeo with this type of situation. Immediately, I recalled the unconvincing confession of 17-year-old Jesse Misskelley (who had a similarly low IQ) in the first Paradise Lost installment. At the time of that confession, only audio taping was used in the interrogation room (so we don’t get the same visual impact as in Dassey’s case) but a similar pattern of leading questioning and confused answers from Misskelley is evident. This flimsy confession was the basis of the entire case against Misskelley, Damien Echols, and Jason Baldwin.

Watching the West Memphis Three trial unfold in the twilight years of Satanic Panic in the U.S. is almost surreal. It’s hard to believe that the prosecutor’s case was able to hold water in the late twentieth century.

There are some who still believe that the West Memphis Three are guilty of these horrific murders, including Todd and Dana Moore, the parents of one of the young victims. The Moores wrote a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to withdraw the film from consideration. A satisfactory re-trial was never held and there wasn’t sufficient DNA evidence to prove guilt or innocence one way or the other. Many experts agree, though, that the original trial was poorly handled, with much of the evidence fabricated or completely misinterpreted.

L’affaire Dumont (2012)

Image: Seville Pictures

Image: Seville Pictures

This Canadian feature directed by Daniel Grou (AKA Podz) is based on the true story of Michel Dumont (played beautifully by Marc-André Grondin), who was a 28-year-old divorced father of two when his life was turned upside down. He was arrested on suspicion of raping a woman, in spite of a lack of any compelling physical evidence linking him to the crime, as well as a disparity between his appearance and that of the description provided by the victim.

After an astonishing trial (the film uses many of the actual court transcripts), in which facts don’t seem to be much of a consideration, Dumont is sent to prison. In spite of the victim repeatedly telling police that she doesn’t think Dumont is the guilty party, he remains imprisoned. A woman named Solange (Marilyn Castonguay), whom he met after his initial arrest but before imprisonment, may prove to be his champion. Not only does she marry Dumont, she tries her best to help out with his kids while he is away. Sadly, she is unable to keep them free from significant harm at the hands of different people, another frequent byproduct of families torn apart by wrongful incarceration. It is Solange’s persistence and action against daunting odds that proves to be Dumont’s saving grace.

Also recommended: West of Memphis, The Trials of Darryl Hunt, Incendiary: The Willingham Case, The Last Word, Capturing the Friedmans, Once Upon a Crime: The Borrelli-Davis Conspiracy, Conviction, The Thin Blue Line, The Central Park Five

To find out more about The Innocence Project, go to

http://www.innocenceproject.org/free-innocent