If you care about how reporters cover crime, watch Netflix’s ‘Murderer’ — and be glad for it

IMG_1502The documentary series Making a Murderer got me reminiscing, and not in warm and fuzzy way.
I thought back to all my long days — and some long evenings — sitting in courtrooms as a journalist.

I covered courts and cops as a beat in Ohio for about seven years, starting in 1988.
Watching the “Murderer” courthouse scenes brought me back to some uncomfortable moments: struggling to understand the lines of questioning, worrying about misstating something important on deadline, and — this is the big one — remembering the accused is NOT GUILTY.
There are lots of reasons the “Murderer” series should have been made. There are many great things about it, including the dedication of resources, risk and time commitment to make it.
The most important to me? The series should force journalists to again think hard about the presumption of innocence, especially those who have become hardened to the courthouse beat, especially those who might be punch-drunk watching years and years of defendant after defendant hauled off to prison, failing to beat even any single charge.These reporters need to hold tight to that presumption, as much so as jurors.
It’s not easy.
If you’ve watched the documentary series, you’ve seen the power of the prosecution and police to overwhelm with alleged evidence. They say they have it — often, shouting it from the podiums and courthouse steps — but do not have to actually show it at all, at least until trial. Often, at least from my experience, the defense attorneys are much less talkative and share less information about what could help their clients. When some of those attorneys are candid, especially the ones paid with public money to represent the poor, they’ll admit they are so snowed under with other cases they have no clue for quite some time about possible alibis or exculpatory evidence.
As anyone knows who has read about the avalanche of cases falling on public defenders, some do not meet with clients until they both show up in court. It’s not unheard of that first meeting to result in the defendant taking a plea bargain and admitting guilt. Wham! Bam! That one’s handled. Rack one up for the justice system.
I sat in court on many cases wondering if any defense would be presented at all. Or, the narrative became so difficult to follow that it was clear the defense had been hamstrung by some judge’s ruling limiting evidence or had gotten so discombobulated the defendant’s story got lost.
It’s easy as a reporter to take the lazy way out.

Presume guilt. Buddy up to the prosecutors. Giggle with cops at what seem like silly or insane arguments by the defense. Bang out the story about the bad guy (or gal) getting just desserts. Go to the bar. Maybe even have a drink with the lieutenant who was on the stand the day before.
What makes the “Murderer” so compelling is the knowledge that the system failed the defendant so disastrously in his previous case. Who can not presume innocence in Steven Avery’s new case when he spent 18 years wrongfully imprisoned? It makes everyone uneasy, worried about veracity of every thing stated, every bit of evidence presented, skeptical. Like they should be.
I’m certainly not an expert on this stuff.
But I have seen enough odd activity that I can add one more voice to the hue and cry for everyone — not just journalists — to watch police and prosecutors more carefully.
Just to be clear, as “Murderer” points out numerous times, it’s not that the lawmen and women are evil and sit around plotting how to convict the innocent.  We cannot forget what they do for a living. They roll with the despicable in our society. They see nasty people doing nasty, nasty things all the time. They see nasty, nasty people getting away with nasty things all the time.
When they get one of these people in court, and they know in their hearts he or she is a bad person, they don’t want that person walking free.
Would a cop shade the truth on the witness stand. I say yes.
Would a prosecutor delay getting evidence to the defense if it could help a defendant? Yes, again.
Would a judge tend to side with the prosecutors he sees (and trusts) every day rather than an out-of-town defense attorney? Give the police the benefit of the doubt? Be slow to believe a cop could lie? Yes and yes and yes.
Would a gaggle of reporters dismiss arguments before the attorneys even finish making them? Roll their eyes and check their watches as the defense tries to poke holes in police evidence? Scoff at the mere suggestion of police or prosecutorial misconduct?
I’ve seen all that. Tried to never fall into it. Certainly have seen it, though, often.
I had the great experience of working in court when cameras were often allowed. I wish they were in all courtrooms, all the time.
No, not for only the reasons you might think. I want the journalists to know they are in the camera’s eye.
Imagine how embarrassing it would be for a reporter to be caught on video laughing off a defense argument … asking a question showing he or she has no clue about what the defense worked painstakingly to prove the day before … parroting point by point only the prosecution side of the case.
Again, the “Murderer” has brought all this back to the table for discussion. I’m very glad for that.
If  you’re a journalist covering courts or care about how well that’s done, you should be, too.

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Author: David Iseman

Longtime newsguy. Retired. Tinkering with words. Lemme know what you think.

3 thoughts on “If you care about how reporters cover crime, watch Netflix’s ‘Murderer’ — and be glad for it”

  1. I’m with you, bud, especially having worked in a court for 15 years after writing good stuff with you. Remember the confession in our office?

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