You signed that 'Making a Murderer' petition? Here's why Obama can't help
There's just one problem: Obama can only issue pardons for federal criminal convictions, not those of people locked up by the state.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has the power to pardon Avery, but in a press statement on Tuesday, his spokesperson rejected any possibility of that happening.
While some legal experts and advocates are thrilled to see the outpouring of interest in the criminal justice system, some were disheartened to learn that the petition was so misguided. A separate Change.org petition that also asks Obama to pardon Avery boasts more than 340,000 names.
"The fact that they initially directed it towards the President is a sad fact of their unawareness of how their government structure works," says Daniel L. Feldman, an associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "Of course that's not surprising. We do know that many Americans know very little about their own government."
The data supports Feldman's assertion: A poll conducted by the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center last year found that just a third of adult respondents could name all three branches of U.S. government—about the same proportion of Americans could not name a single one.
At the same time, the popularity of true crime series like Making a Murderer is igniting enormous interest in the American judicial system and raising awareness about the ways money, power, and influence (and the lack thereof) can sway prosecutors and affect the outcome of a trial.
New evidence examined in the HBO series The Jinx led to a renewed push for charges against accused murderer Robert Durst. The elusive millionaire was arrested in March, the night before the series finale, in which he appears to admit to the crimes. After convicted murderer Adnan Syed's story unfolded last year on the podcast Serial, several petitions called for Maryland to reopen the case. In November, a Baltimore judge agreed to grant Syed a new hearing.
The 10-part series Making a Murderer, filmed by directors Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos over the course of a decade in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, entertains the possibility that Avery may have been framed for murder by law enforcement officials. The documentary alleges that authorities may have been seeking to deflect Avery's $36 million lawsuit for a wrongful sexual assault conviction for which he served 18 years in prison before being freed on DNA evidence. Prosecutors maintain that the series intentionally presents misinformation to manipulate viewers to side with Avery.
Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at the D.C.-based The Sentencing Project, a group that trains defense lawyers and pushes for sentencing reform, suggests the filmmakers could have played a larger role in guiding viewers toward advocacy efforts. "I don't know how intentional these filmmakers are in attempting broader policies given the circumstances of the case," she says.
Ricciardi and Demos did not get involved with the petitions and say they don't know if Avery is innocent. "What I learned from making this series is the humility to accept that I don't know, and I may never know," Demos told The Daily Beast recently. "That was one of the things we learned doing this: Just because you have questions doesn't mean that you're going to get an answer." The filmmakers did not respond to requests for comment.
The directors say they hope the series will raise questions about the possibility of major flaws within the judicial process. Feldman, who last year coauthored The Art of the Watchdog: Fighting Fraud, Waste, Abuse and Corruption in Government, sees that as an advantage.
"The fact that the public is getting upset about this Steven Avery case on that basis, I kind of like that. I think that public involvement or public reaction to injustice—and certainly perceived injustice—is a good thing," says Feldman. "And if these shows are sensitizing the public to the possibility of injustice in these situations, that's a good thing."
You don't want to watch this video if you haven't finished 'Making a Murderer' yet:
Related stories on TakePart:
What 'Making a Murderer' Taught Us About False Confessions by Juveniles
Tacos, Urinals, and Shattered Glass: This Is What Incarceration Looks Like
How Mass Incarceration Is Damaging Kids