There’s just one problem: Obama can only issue pardons for federal criminal convictions, not those of people locked up by the state.
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 toward 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 City. “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 last year by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania found that just a third of adult respondents could name all three branches of the 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 lack thereof) can sway prosecutors and result in the reopening of cases.
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
, directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos over the course of a decade in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, entertains the possibility that law enforcement officials may have framed Avery for murder. 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 presents misinformation
to manipulate viewers into siding with Avery.
Nicole Porter, director of advocacy at the Washington, D.C.–based 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 were not involved with the petitions and say they don’t know whether 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. “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 from TakePart 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,” he says. “And if these shows are sensitizing the public to the possibility of injustice in these situations, that’s a good thing.”