“It didn’t matter to us if Steven was guilty or innocent”: Making A Murderer directors on crafting Part 2

In December 2015, the whole world’s scorn was placed on Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. In that month, Making A Murderer, a true-crime documentary made for Netflix shone a light on the trial and conviction of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey; for the murder of Teresa Halbach over a decade earlier.

In the opening scenes, you see such the vitriol spewing all over the shop. Some think Avery and Dassey are innocent, some not, but at that point onwards everyone took a side. And it got ugly, from pundits having their two cents to protests on the court steps in Manitowoc and President Obama’s response to the outcry for justice. But it goes a lot deeper than that. 10 new episodes, now on Netflix, follow the several developments since the first part of Making a Murderer aired.

For starters, Avery has a new lawyer, Kathleen Zellner, who is famous for overturning wrongful convictions. She’s now going over the case with an eagle-eye, trying to work out what actually happened that night, and how the prosecution stiffed her now-client. Brandon Dassey, meanwhile, had his conviction overturned, and was ordered to be released in 2016. An appeal has kept him in prison since. If you thought the first series was complex, well, the new episode throws you even further into the criminal justice system.

As the new episodes are released and the world’s focus turns back to that fateful, complex and infuriating case, the show’s makers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos tell us about what they wanted to achieve with the show, what Trump’s response may have been, and whether we’ll have a third series.

How did the success of the first series change the dynamic of the second?

Moira: I don’t think it changed the entire dynamic. We knew that going back to Manitowoc would not be the same, and that it would not be the same world because of Part 1. We’re very much about understanding context and that’s part of what Part 1 was all about – you can’t understand the present without looking at the past. We understood that the response to Part 1 would be the context for which Part 2 would take place. It also seemed to be an opportunity because debate, discussion and transparency: they are all positive things.

What was it like working with Steven’s new lawyer, Kathleen Zellner…

Laura: It feels like a wonderful opportunity, actually, because we’ve never witnessed anybody working in the way that she does. We are really grateful that she and Steven chose to let us in and we understand why – they value transparency. She doesn’t want to use her abilities to free someone who she believes actually committed the crime, or knows they did. She sees herself as someone trying to right a wrong and we’re beneficiaries of that in a sense. She has nothing to hide, so we’re allowed to be a fly on the wall to document what we’re doing.

Do you think there are misconceptions about your intentions when making this show?

Moira: There’s some evidence that some people miss the point, sure. I think it comes down to people that don’t understand our process. We’re all about the process and yet our process is missed. What we are documenting, and we are interested in is the experience of the people involved, and there’s room for confusion in Part 2.

Brendan Dassey with his family

It emboldened people to become amateur sleuths, and people now think they have the answers. Do they?

Moira: We don’t really believe that Part 1 puts you in position to have answers. We understand that we left people with a load of unanswered questions. So for people to think they have an answer? I guess you’d have to ask them. We had chosen Steven’s story because of his unique status as a DNA exoneree charged with a crime – this was an incredible opportunity to meet a man who was unequivocally failed by the system in 1985, and now was going to step back into it. Between ‘85-’05 there had been major advances in DNA, and huge legislative reform in the USA about police practises and investigative techniques. There was a lot of chat about wrongful convictions being a problem from the ’80s and that ‘we’ve advanced techniques, we’re in the modern world and don’t have these problems’. Well, we could  test that.

We were pointing our cameras at the prosecution. It didn’t matter to us if Steven was guilty or innocent – the outcome of the trial was not going to change the story. The story was: how was he treated as the accused? So I don’t know how we could have proven something about his guilt or innocence.

Laura: When we say prosecution, we don’t mean the team. It’s the investigative process, and what we’re trying to show is the experience of this particular accused person and his co-defendant, Brendan Dassey. We chose Steven because of his unique status. For Steven, it was a circumstantial evidence case presented. In Part 2, Ken Kratz refers to it as such, and he talks about as a circumstantial forensic case – so facts were in dispute. That’s why Steven felt compelled to take it to trial. We spent a number of episodes in part 1 showing the trial, partly because we’re storytellers and the story is conflict driven.

Is it frustrating knowing that people think the story is solved?

Laura: I can understand why people might come away thinking that they have the full picture of the trial, and the reality is that we can’t include everything. We’ve never thought ‘people can just watch this, and feel like they have enough to go on the question of innocence’. The burden of proof on the state is whether they can prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt, and if they fail to meet that standard, it doesn’t mean he’s innocent, it just means that they haven’t met the burden. What we were hoping for people to come away from in Part 1 was understanding how complex all this is. Maybe in some ways, some people can do their own part. Like, next time they see a perp walk – don’t assume you have the full story of the accused. In Part 2 we’re definitely documenting and trying to show the experience of someone convicted, serving life and challenging their sentence.

It didn’t matter to us if Steven was guilty or innocent – the outcome of the trial was not going to change the story.

Was there someone who wished you had got involved with the story?

Moira: The whole reason Part 1 exists was because of all the things we didn’t have or forgot about. We focused what we did have. That list that appears in the credits of the opening episodes of people we reached out to from all sides that would have appeared in Part 1, had we thought you need to include a list or you’re going to get a load of questions. They’re all people we invited to partake. Our approach is that we ask people who have first hand experience and are connected and affected by the story.

It seems like the Halbach family are notably absent…

Moira: I would disagree that they are absent. In Part 1, Mike Halbach is present via a number of press conferences, and I’d like to think that anyone who has watched Part 1 gets a clear sense of what their point of view is. We invited the family to participate in both Part 1 and 2 and they declined.

Barack Obama was forced to respond to a petition that wanted to free Steven Avery in 2016. How do you think President Trump would have responded?

Moira: The President had no role in pardoning state prisoners, as you see. So I don’t know what his response would be. In Part 2, what you see is people arguing their case to get into court to have an opportunity to argue their case. Most of what they’re up against is stuff that’s been in place and established, so it’s not necessarily about who’s in the White House at the moment.

Will there be a Part 3?

Moira: The short answer is, maybe?

Making A Murderer Part 2 is on Netflix now