Making a Teachable Moment

by Christine Anne George

I had a plan. My first blog post of 2016 would be about the ORCID project I’m working on this semester. But, alas, this post isn’t going to be about ORCID. Why? Because after suffering from a “show hole” one freezing Saturday in January, I thought I’d watch the first episode of that new Netflix series everyone is talking about on Facebook. Making a Murderer wasn’t my usual fare, but occasionally one needs a break from period dramas. Needless to say, I devoured all ten episodes in binge-like fashion and realized that, like everything else I had anticipated accomplishing that weekend, the plan for my blog post had to change.

If you have somehow managed to avoid any knowledge of Making a Murderer, here’s the trailer. Netflix has also put the first episode on Youtube. It’s riveting, and I often had to remind myself that what was playing out on my screen wasn’t some scripted procedural drama. It was real. It had happened and was still happening. Over the course of the series, I felt all the feelings. There was the anger, outrage, pity, confusion, and even a bit of guilt. I started exploring online, and clearly I was not the only one with feelings post-binge. The drama playing out on the screen was just the beginning.

As I began my descent into the rabbit hole of all the Making a Murderer coverage, I found out about the Change.org petition that called for Steven Avery to be pardoned. (In case you’re not familiar, Change.org is a platform that allowed individuals to petition government decision makers. If the petition gets over 100,000 signatures within 30 days, the White House will respond. My personal favorite is the response to the petition for a Death Star.) The Avery petition garnered far beyond the minimum required signatures, and the White House responded on January 8.

The public’s response to Making a Murderer is somewhat discomfiting though. There has been a lot of debate over the portrayal of the evidence and what has been left out of the series. Also, the commenting public has a whole lot of love for the defense team. But rather than focusing on the big picture questions about a flawed system, more often than not, people opine as to the guilt of Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey. Things aren’t that simple, and there’s a huge difference between advocating for a pardon and advocating for a new trial. It’s great that thousands upon thousands of people are playing armchair detective and taking an interest in the legal system, but there is something to be said about the danger of a little bit of knowledge. Namely, you don’t know what you don’t know.

I thought that the White House’s response was excellent because it took advantage of a teachable moment. Everyone who signed the petition got an email with the White House response. If even half those people read the email, then 200,000 people now know more about the presidential pardoning power than they did before. Before all the fervor dies down, I’m sure there will be many other teachable moments. Making a Murderer could prove to be a hot topic or cautionary tale for evidence, ethics, and any other number of subjects in law schools. It could even turn out to be, as one of my colleagues suggested the other day, what inspires students to study law.

If you haven’t yet watched the series, I do recommend it. You may rage, you may sit in horror, or, at this point, you may think it has been completely overblown, but it is worth talking about.

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