While Wisconsinite Steven Avery remains behind bars, serving a life sentence for the murder of Wisconsin photographer Teresa Halbach after being exonerated of a separate crime by DNA evidence in 2003, Making a Murderer documentarians Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos were vindicated today, receiving six Emmy nominations as the fruit of 10 years’ labor.
“We’re stunned,” Ricciardi says. “We are incredibly grateful to the (TV) Academy to have our entire team’s work acknowledged by our peers in the industry is incredibly rewarding. We’re grateful to everyone who participated in the creation of the series, especially our subjects.” Indeed, for the writer-directors, the focus remains with the subjects of the doc — real people whose lives extend beyond the 10-episode cultural phenomenon and whose families and community were left to grapple with their lives in the wake of tragedy.
“With these nominations, it’s incredibly exciting because it keeps attention on the series and drives new viewers and keeps the conversation going, which was our incentive the whole time in making the series,” Demos says. “To promote a dialogue.”
While the doc’s subject, filmmakers and viewers are left wanting for answers — and resolution to what is (perhaps) yet another tremendous miscarriage of justice — the questions posed by the series remain as clear and as pressing as ever. “The choice to follow this story was very specific, to choose Steven Avery as a window into the system, somebody who was failed by the system in the mid-‘80s and now, 20 years later, was stepping back into it,” Demos says. “It was an opportunity to look over a 20-, and then 30-year period, and ask the question, ‘Have we made progress? Are we doing any better now — now that we have DNA, now that we’ve had reform? Are our verdicts more reliable now, and if not, why not?’”
Ricciardi added: “When (Avery) gave us permission to tell his story, we knew we were going to be on a journey with him, but had no idea where it would go. And what we found in the end — what we took away from it — was that his experiences in the American criminal justice system are such a stark example of how the system can get it wrong, and how we, as a society, respond when injustice is exposed. Do we try to accept and address the mistakes and endeavor to do better, or do we deny them and insist on maintaining the status quo?”
For their part, Demos and Ricciardi are continuing to forge on in their resistance to easy answers, with hopes of developing a follow-up installment to the series as events play out in real time. “The story does continue,” Demos insists. “We are committed to finding a way to follow it, and we’ll need to explore a different way to do it this time, because it is in the zeitgeist, it is in the 24-hour news cycle. So we’re looking at new ways of doing that.”
The filmmakers are rivaled in their militant persistence only by their subject, Steven Avery. “Steven has told us himself that he will continue to fight until he has not only been freed, but cleared his name, and cleared the names of his nephew, Brendan Dassey, and his entire family,” Ricciardi states. The filmmaking duo continue to find Avery worth fighting for, as a documentary subject and as a human being, not only because of his plausible innocence but also because of this willingness and drive to fight, a drive that was there from the very beginning Ultimately, there is in Avery the recognition that, however great his suffering, and however great the injustices personally inflicted upon him may be, his legal battles extend far beyond him, alone, in consequence. “[Avery] actually was a reformer,” Ricciardi says. “He was trying to change the system so that what happened to him in 1985 would not happen again, to anyone else.”
The process of continued investigation into Avery’s case — too quickly judged open-and-shut — has been helped along greatly by the introduction of a new, prodigious defense attorney, Kathleen Zellner, who has made a name for herself in overturning nearly two dozen wrongful convictions. In the nine years since his second conviction, Avery has represented himself. An uneducated man trying to navigate the complex channels of the American legal system, Avery pushed the Sisyphean boulder up the hill until this powerful ally came to his aid. “[Zellner] is very confident she’ll have new information and is pushing forward hard and fast,” Demos says. “She’s in this incredible position of trying, with fresh eyes, to take a look at the case,” Ricciardi adds—“trying to see whether she can develop so-called ‘newly discovered evidence’ and, among other things, to try to get his conviction overturned.”
As they soldier forward, Demos and Ricciardi continue to rebuff and reject the controversy spiraling around the case, as well as any and all accusations of their malfeasance in cutting together the 10-part series. “As far as controversy, we view it as a manufactured controversy — manufactured by the former prosecutor Ken Kratz,” Ricciardi states. “We stand by our process and our product, that it’s complete, accurate and fair. So most of that is just the product of headlines, and click-bait, and doesn’t really have anything to do with reality.” As with Zellner, the filmmakers remain in frequent contact with Avery and others involved with the case, speaking to Avery most recently a few days after his 54th birthday on July 9.
While the pursuit of Avery’s freedom will continue to be pre-eminent in the documentarians’ minds, their accomplishment with Making a Murderer is worth a second look. Especially remarkable is Riccardi’s background as a former lawyer, whose particular set of skills proved crucial in elevating and executing what originated as a complex grad school film project. “I think I heard one of the trial lawyers recently say that there were 27,000 pages of discovery that were turned over by the state alone, so my education and my background allowed me to review the documents not only for the Halbach case, but for all the legal matters that had come before,” Ricciardi shares. “The objective was to research these matters as thoroughly as possible, and to ultimately make the series as accessible to viewers—laypeople— as possible.”
With the Emmys approaching and the Steven Avery story continuing to churn in the news cycle, it seems that one goal has been accomplished on the road to a remarkable destination.