Actually, Steven Avery Is a Lucky Guy

Steven Avery was a lucky man. If he hadn't been framed for rape, he would have no chance of successfully challenging his conviction for murder.
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Steven Avery was a lucky man.

If he hadn't been framed for rape, he would have no chance of successfully challenging his conviction for murder.

If Avery, the subject of the Netflix documentary series "Making a Murderer," hadn't been falsely imprisoned for eighteen years for a rape he didn't commit, his arrest for the murder of Teresa Halbach would never have landed on the front page of the November 23, 2005 New York Times. And Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi would never have noticed him and moved out to Wisconsin to film the proceedings against him.

Without the video evidence that Demos and Ricciardi collected, "Making a Murderer" could not have become a social media juggernaut that drew out a juror - one who voted to convict Avery in 2006 - and caused him to report misconduct in deliberations after he watched Netflix and didn't chill.

Without the show, Avery wouldn't have inspired the winningest exoneration attorney - Kathleen Zellner of Downers Grove, Illinois - to take his case pro bono.

All of this reveals a lamentable reality about claiming your innocence from behind bars: it's not the truth, but the news that shall set you free.

This is the second time within the last year that someone who had exculpatory information - or information that might secure a prisoner a second trial - emerged under heightened media scrutiny.

Sarah Koenig's podcast Serial - a reexamination of Adnan Syed's murder conviction - caused alibi witness Asia McClain to re-assert the fact that she had seen Syed, a fellow student at Woodlawn High School, in the library during the afternoon of the murder for which he was convicted.

None of the momentum that led to Syed's second hearing - granted just this past November, approximately fifteen years after the crime - would have been possible without extensive media coverage of his case.

The Innocence Project estimates that anywhere between 40,000-100,000 prisoners are actually innocent of the crimes that keep them in custody. The names of only two of them remain on the tip of the public's tongue right now: Avery and Syed.

Those unnoticed defendants don't have two documentary filmmakers breaking the fourth wall to show the injustices in their cases to the rest of the world. Unless they attract the attention of journalists and celebrities, the chances of the remaining thousands being freed or exonerated are low, because evidence and witnesses aren't surfacing for them like they are for Avery and Syed.

Avery was lucky, too, when he had enough money to retain lawyers who knew and cared enough to establish a complete trial record for post-conviction review.

While it wasn't the $36 million he had anticipated collecting from Manitowoc County, Wisconsin for his wrongful conviction, the $400,000 Steven Avery received in settlement in his civil suit retained two hard-working attorneys whose zeal and dedication to their client was so inspiring that love memes about them decorate the social media landscape.

Eighty percent of state inmates are poor and are represented by appointed counsel who don't devote the time and concern that Jerry Buting and Dean Strang did to their client's case. In fact, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit in Idaho this past summer, citing "nonexistent" investigation by the state's public defenders. And that's if they can get a lawyer; the ACLU filed suit last week against the Orleans Parish Public Defenders in New Orleans, Louisiana for refusing to accept indigent clients at all.

As someone who sat in York Correctional Institution for six-plus years protesting her convictions, an inmate who's bid for exoneration outlasted her sentence, I often wonder how much of that six years I would have served if I had a Demos or a Ricciardi on scene when I was being prosecuted.

I don't begrudge Avery or Syed the attention they're getting. In fact, I'm glad that someone can get the justice that I probably never will.

But the fact that Avery has a chance at justice or freedom doesn't erase the lasting inequity in how criminal cases are investigated and publicized. Everyone who's accused of a crime deserves a Netflix-worthy level of scrutiny applied to the evidence against him before he loses his freedom. Few rarely get it.

People have various opinions on what "Making a Murderer" should teach us; the potential for bald corruption (or stupidity) in law enforcement, the masterful subtlety involved in coerced confessions, the surprising limits of forensic science and how it can actually prevent certainty instead of enhancing it.

"Making a Murderer" tells me that justice is essentially random; relegated to the chances of whether someone can attract the media buzz needed to turn the entire country into an activist jury.

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