This OP/ED was prepared by CJRJ Contributor Paula Grabow in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Criminal Justice Reform Journal.
The true crime genre is the latest reality obsession. The genesis of this craze owes its start to a weekly podcast called Serial covering the trial of Adnan Syed. It was shortly followed by Netflix’s blockbuster Emmy award-winning documentary Making a Murderer. Making a Murderer gives us a backstage pass on what it takes to prepare a criminal defense for Steven Avery. We got a front-row seat observing our criminal justice system from the perspective of the defendant, his team of lawyers and his family.
These documentaries have done wonders for opening people’s eyes to the problems within our criminal justice system. It’s opened a fantastic dialogue on social media, discussing what needs to be done to reform our criminal justice system. Imbalances exist between the prosecution and the defense as resources are skewed heavily in favor of the prosecution. We need to tip the scales of lady justice back to a more level playing field. There are many ideas to discuss regarding reform but sadly a lot of the great dialogue has digressed into nastiness and personal attacks. ”Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people”. – Eleanor Roosevelt.
In the Making a Murderer online community, ”tribes” were immediately formed based on your view of Steven’s innocence. By tribe, I am specifically referring to a group or social network that share a common belief. One identifies as a ”Guilter” if you believed Avery was guilty. You identified yourself as a ”Truther” if you thought he was wrongly convicted. Sadly this was the beginning of the polarization. Everyone has a mutual interest in criminal justice reform since it’s a bipartisan issue. When these tribes emerged was the moment when people ceased sharing common ground. At this juncture critical thinking went straight out the window for many involved.
The online battles disintegrated into an Us vs Them mentality. Both sides felt they are good, right, worthy of respect, more rational and what they have to say was true. In their view, the other side was bad, wrong in their beliefs, irrational, stubborn and of course false in their thinking. It was unbelievable seeing formerly rational, intelligent people attacking each other like a pack of feral animals. This started about a case and turned so vile, it made me pause and reevaluate my participation on social media. I know several people who walked away from social media completely because of how viciously they were attacked.
Social media affords people an opportunity to say things with some protection especially when a platform allows you to disguise your identity. It’s shameful that Twitter allows people to have multiple profiles. It’s being abused by people using it as a loophole to attack when they are caught violating rules. I am all for freedom of speech but it needs to be used wisely and responsibly. One shouldn’t have to resort to contacting law enforcement because they are being harassed on Twitter. You should be able to express an opinion without being personally attacked for it.
Making a Murderer has also thrust the Avery and Dassey families into the spotlight as celebrities. They have received an outpouring of support from fans all over the world. Many have been generous in their financial support of both Steven and Brendan.
The Dassey family started a Go Fund Me page with the goal of helping Brendan upon his release. Incredibly the fund has generated $19,000 from generous supporter donations. The tide started to change against the family when Kathleen Zellner raised some serious questions about the credibility of Barb and Scott Tadych in her latest motion. It caused many supporters to question what was being done with their donations. These Go Fund Me accounts are not legitimate charities and don’t have strict rules to follow. Supporters need to realize that once money goes into a Go Fund Me account they have no control over how it’s being used.
With newfound celebrity comes intense scrutiny. It’s the sad reality of being in the public eye. The attention has radically shifted from Brendan’s innocence to concerns about supporter donations. Accusations are running rampant all over social media whether Brendan is the family’s cash crop. The conversation needs to revert back to his wrongful conviction and innocence. Proceeding forward people shouldn’t be discouraged from donating, merely change the organization being funded. Brendan’s amazing attorney’s, Laura Nirider and Steve Drizin do fantastic work at the Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth. Monies donated will go a long way towards helping clients similar to Brendan. You can make a difference and be reassured your money will be used responsibly.
A perfect example of a seamless Go Fund Me account was created by another Kathleen Zellner client, Melissa Caulsinski. Her family set up the account specifically to raise funds for travel expenses. It’s a 700-mile round trip to visit Melissa in prison. Supporters are encouraged to donate directly to Zellner if they would prefer. It’s never a good idea to donate directly to a family member as its bound to bring resentment.
Another example from the family is Carla Chase, Steven Avery’s niece. She became the “unofficial” family spokesperson when the documentary first aired. She started a family group on Facebook. In addition she was involved with a discussion group called Steven Avery: Innocent or Guilty. It’s bad enough being on Facebook interacting with the ”guilters” but she has proudly posed for pictures that have been posted all over social media. I am all for diplomacy but this particular “guilter” said some of the nastiest things about Avery, her family, and supporters. It was in poor taste to use this as a photo opportunity when meeting him at a rally for Steven and Brendan.
These behaviors are not limited to Making a Murderer but prevalent across all platforms of social media. It would be wonderful if we could rise above the nastiness to discuss the bigger issues instead of getting into these polarizing Us vs Them spats. These battles accomplish nothing, but do have the potential to ruin peoples lives, and sour people on social media entirely. Supporters are not entirely innocent in this. Certain individuals need to take an honest look at themselves and see what is driving them. Do they want a piece of the fame pie? I am no fan of Barb or Carla but I think it’s fair to say we are not privy to all that’s going on behind the scenes either. Let’s not forget about fame. Fame is fleeting and it would be wise to utilize it for a worthy cause. Unfortunately a brush with fame has the potential to highlight a persons character flaws. Use your 15 minutes wisely…..