In retrospect, a lot of Making a Murderer season 1 was like a homemade corkboard in a basement: vague connections made by two people (Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, in this case) who barely had a sense of how massive an undertaking the case would be. Season 1 was a lot of interviews with Steven Avery's defense team Dean Strang and Jerry Buting. It involved some pathos from the Avery family and Steven’s ex-girlfriend. It was a smorgasbord of information peddled as something that probably needed your attention. Season 2 doesn’t need to have that kind of artistry because it has Kathleen Zellner. Drizin and Nirider are also involved as we learned in episode 1, but they don’t have the kind of steely-eyed obsession that Zellner has. Zellner says in episode 2 that, whenever she’s nervous about a case, she pictures herself walking out of prison with a newly freed victim.
“You have to be an obsessive kind of personality to do this, you know,” she admits, copping to her greatest strength. “But there’s no better feeling in the world than walking out of prison with someone who’s innocent.”
The episode focuses first on Brendan Dassey, the second alleged wrongful conviction in Teresa Halbach’s murder. A lot has happened in Brendan Dassey's case between the end of season 1 and the release of season 2 of Making A Murderer, so instead of sharing new information, it's trailing behind news reports now, essentially doing emotional recaps. First, his overturned conviction was upheld, which suggested that Brendan would be released from prison. Then, in December of last year, he lost his appeal. Meanwhile, in show-land, Brendan is still in prison with possibility of being released. Experts Steve Drizin and Laura Nirider are trying to clear Brendan by focusing on his taped confession. This action, while evidently futile (remember: we know this won't work) is still an interesting look at the legal system.
For example, did you know that law experts consider police tactics coercive? Nirider says that what police have been taught to do — how they recognize "liars" — can actually engender an involuntary confession. Here are the issues with Brendan's tapes, per Drizin and Nirider:
Back in 2006, when he confessed, Brendan was 1) misclassified, 2) coerced, and 3) contaminated. Investigators first misidentified Brendan as absolutely involved in the death. They saw that he was reticent and often avoided eye contact, something that is part of Brendan’s disability. To them, though, this read as guilt. Then, they coerced him, telling Brendan that they already knew what he did and all the team needed was for him to confess. Plus, they implied that Brendan would be released if he just told them what they wanted to hear. Finally, they gave him the information he needed to spin his confession: They told him what happened to Teresa Halbach, essentially inputting the knowledge they would later extract.
Finally, and this is a big issue: Ken Kratz held a press conference shortly after the confession, effectively sealing the confession as fact. Once the story of this confession made its way to the wider public, it became accepted and streamlined. It was mythologized, absorbed and adored by both the public and the prosecution. How can Brendan defend himself then?
According to Drizin, who looks like Andy Buckley (AKA David Wallace from The Office), this makes the confession inadmissible. This is all very cool and thrilling legal info; plot-wise, the action of Drizin and Nirider feels a bit like treading water.
This confession is still a big part of the case against Steven, though, which is why Zellner is invested in the outcome of Brendan’s case. Icy Zellner, who will eventually be played by Angelica Huston in a biopic, is too goal-oriented to ignore his case. That said, his case involves zero DNA evidence (very bad, Manitowoc county!) and Zellner loves probing DNA evidence. Zellner loves an expert. Zellner loves to prove that the people who came before her were idiots. Zellner, again, is going to make a fascinating biopic.
Her team of experts are great because they can say a lot of fluffy, smart things about the events of last season. They’re also a dime a dozen, though, and skeptics might be able to see beyond their bluster. You could probably find an expert to prove that cats see out of their buttholes, you know?
Anyway, the first expert in this episode is Karl Reich, a forensic DNA consultant who aims to examine the blood in the car. (You thought we were done with that? Well, you thought wrong!) There’s also the matter of sweat under the hood latch. The sweat DNA on the hood latch is first problematic because it wasn’t collected by the lab — the Calumet County Sheriff’s department took it. And, the hood latch wasn’t investigated until after Brendan’s confession. During that confession, investigators fed Brendan a line about Steven opening up the hood latch. Thus, investigators could have planted the "DNA" after the confession. All of this calls the sweat into question.
According to Karl Reich, sweat as a bodily fluid can’t be tested for. (You can test for: urine, saliva, blood, and semen. Everything else is a big old question mark.) His team later proves that DNA from “handling” a hood latch is negligible. Plus, the fluids found under the latch didn’t demonstrate DNA from any other user of the car. Ostensibly, someone else handled that latch at some point.
Next, Zellner aims to prove Steven’s innocence via brain fingerprinting. This is a fancy lie detector test designed by Dr. Larry Farwell, a weary-looking Aaron Eckhardt look-a-like. According to his brain fingerprint, Farwell concludes, Steven doesn’t know details about the crime that someone who did the crime would know, like where Teresa Halbach was positioned before she was loaded into her Rav 4.
Finally, Zellner goes for the location of the car itself. Did you know that the Avery’s car lot is located next to a quarry owned by the Radandt family? You know now, and Zellner also tells us that the cadaver dogs assigned to find Halbach traced her scent through the quarry before they headed to the lot. Zellner does impressive detective work here, unraveling the scene of the crime the way, well, only a great defense lawyer could done. She’s telling us a story, crafting the murder from square one, and it’s riveting work.
The most upsetting part about Zellner’s takeover of Steven’s case is that, in the process, she must discredit Steven’s previous lawyers, who became true crime darlings following the first season. They were good lawyers, but they weren’t Zellner. Zellner is impeccable, down to her smudge-free lipstick and her chipper clerks. (She has many. They are the most guileless people on this show.) She is obsessive, and Strang and Buting could never compete with her.
Because of Zellner’s intensity, episode 2’s brief detour into the personal lives of the Averys comes as a relief. The Averys rarely do much on this show; the things that are happening to them are so terrible that they don’t have to prove that they’re struggling. Steven’s mother looks perpetually tired. Steven’s father is angry. The lot is losing money and business, thanks to the case.
Steven, meanwhile, is in good spirits. He’s convinced he’ll get out. He’s even planning to build a house. Maybe he’ll move to Michigan. His girlfriend from last season, Sandy, dumped him publicly on Dr. Phil — it was a misunderstanding, but these are the things that end relationships — and now he has a new one. Plus, he’s got Zellner on his side.
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