What Steven Avery And O.J. Simpson Both Prove About Justice
Have you watched the Netflix series Making A Murderer yet? It documents the troubling case of Steven Avery, a man who served 18 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit, only to return to prison a few years later after being convicted of the murder of a woman named Teresa Halbach. It seems as if every single person who's watched the documentary has something to say about it, and I'm no exception. We talk about it on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by comics Jeff May and Caitlin Cutt. Oddly enough, it's also what I'm talking about in this very column here today.
Specifically, I want to talk about the very obvious parallels between the Steven Avery case and the O.J. Simpson trial. I knew this was something I wanted to write about almost as soon as I started watching Making A Murderer. A few weeks have passed since then, so as is customary in situations like this, I did a little pre-column Googling to see if anyone else has made note of this. As it turns out, someone has in fact gone on record to point out all of the things the two cases have in common. That person, naturally, is former New Kids On the Block singer Donnie Wahlberg.
Yes, of course!
In an article written for a site called Splash, which is owned by the Chicago Sun Times, Wahlberg briefly comments on the parallels between the two cases. Specifically, he brings up the allegations in both cases that police planted or otherwise fabricated evidence to pin responsibility for a heinous crime on their suspect.
That's all true and fine, but from there, his arguments completely fall apart. For starters, he points out how in the O.J. trial, we knew based on evidence presented at the time that the cop accused of planting evidence, Mark Fuhrman, was a legitimately bad person. That's true. He was caught on tape using racial slurs, and lied on the stand when asked if that was something he'd ever done. However, Wahlberg then quite absurdly suggests that we have zero evidence of the "evil" nature of the law enforcement officials involved in the Avery case.
When you see it ...
Did he even fucking watch Making A Murderer? The cops he's referring to sent Avery to prison for 18 years for a rape he didn't commit. When they came upon evidence that pointed to another suspect, they kept it secret for years, leaving an innocent man to waste away in prison while an actual rapist was allowed to run free and continue assaulting women. I'm no ethics expert, but that seems pretty damn evil to me.
His reasoning goes even further off the rails when he talks about what he believes to be the key difference between the two cases. In Making A Murderer, the public was only able to view the trial through the lens of a lopsided documentary that left out key facts to make their case stronger, but with the O.J. trial, we got to see everything. From there, his article turns into yet another variation of the countless "The Evidence Against Steven Avery That Making A Murderer Left Out" articles which you've undoubtedly read several times on any number of different websites.
There are two problems with this point. For starters, Avery's defense team has pointed out that their arguments against that evidence was also left out of the documentary. For example, the claim that Teresa Halbach was scared to go back to the Avery property was refuted by two Auto Trader employees who testified at the trial. Have you read that in any of those "missing evidence" articles? Probably not.
Also, the idea that we've seen and heard everything there is to know about the O.J. trial is completely incorrect. The main problem with the police investigation in both cases is that, right out of the gate, they focused on one suspect they believed to be guilty and catered their investigation to that line of thinking. That's especially problematic when it comes to O.J., because there was in fact another suspect whom police barely even interviewed.
Is it the little girl????
The guy on the right in the above photo is O.J. Simpson's son Jason, and since "what you didn't hear" lists are all the rage right now, let's run down a few things you have almost certainly never heard about Jason Simpson and the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman:
-- At the time of the murders, Jason Simpson was on probation for assaulting a previous employer with a knife.
-- Long before the murders, he was diagnosed with intermittent rage disorder. He took a prescription anti-psychotic called Depakote to control the condition.
-- Two weeks prior to the murders, he stopped taking his medication.
-- Around that same time, he checked himself into Cedars-Sinai Hospital, saying he was off his meds and "about to rage."
-- He worked (and still works) as a chef. On the night of the murders, Nicole Brown and a group of friends were supposed to meet at the restaurant where he worked as head chef for a dinner he'd been planning for weeks. She cancelled at the last minute and went to Mezzaluna (the restaurant Ron Goldman worked at) instead.
-- In his one brief interview with police, he provided a time card from his job at that restaurant as an alibi. The time card was hand-written, even though the punch machine was working properly that night.
-- As professional chefs often do, Jason Simpson carried knives on or near him at all times.
All of these people will fucking cut you.
-- Ron Goldman had bruising and fractures on his hands and feet, the result of landing several blows to the assailant who eventually killed him. O.J. Simpson, aside from a very small cut on his hand, had no signs of bruising or anything else consistent with engaging in that kind of fight.
-- DNA found under Nicole Brown's fingernails and several fingerprints at the crime scene did not match that of Ron Goldman or O.J. Simpson.
-- The day after the murders, before police took him into custody, O.J. Simpson hired a defense attorney ... for a still-unnamed third party.
Did you know all that? Stop fucking lying, you did not. Anyway, what's listed above doesn't even sort of represent all of the evidence that points to Jason Simpson being the guilty party.
A private investigator named Bill Dear has spent 18 years of his life and more than a million dollars of his own money looking into the possibility that O.J. wasn't the person who killed Nicole Brown. If it makes you feel any better, though, he is convinced that O.J. was at the scene after the murders, and aided his son in covering up his role in the crime. So O.J. is still guilty of something that likely would have put him away for a long time if he was convicted, but in their rush to pin the murders on him, the police completely overlooked another very obvious suspect.
Dear has written a book on the subject, the subtly-titled O.J. Is Innocent And I Can Prove It. His documentary about the case, Overlooked Suspect, won the "Best Investigative Documentary" award at the 2011 DocMiami Film Festival. I'd say you should watch it sometime if you can track it down (or read the book, which is way easier to find now), but judging from the conversations I've had about Making A Murderer, I know exactly what you'll say ...
"Yeah, but documentaries just tell one side of the story." Well yes, because that's exactly what they're supposed to do. You see, we already know the other side of the story, especially as it relates to O.J. Simpson and Steven Avery. The cases their respective states presented in their criminal trials are the other side. Good documentaries, especially investigative documentaries, are meant to challenge the accepted, official position on whatever story they're telling. That is why these documentaries exist.
Case in point: Have you seen a documentary called Hot Coffee?
If not, you probably still think that woman who sued McDonald's after spilling coffee in her lap represents the pinnacle of frivolous lawsuits. You are wrong. You are super fucking wrong. If you never watch that documentary, though, chances are you'll never know it. Sure, documentaries tell you one side of the story, but more often than not, it's the side you've never heard. Ignoring that information is willful ignorance and nothing else.
Anyway, I'm getting off-track here. This is supposed to be about the similarities between Making A Murderer and the O.J. Simpson trial. There is a pretty huge one that I haven't mentioned so far, and when you get right down to it, almost every true crime documentary comes to this one same conclusion: If you're poor, the chances of you successfully defending yourself against false allegations are slim to none.
That's very obviously true when it comes to O.J. Simpson. If he didn't have the expendable cash necessary to hire a huge team of defense lawyers, the "Trial of the Century" would've lasted about a week, and it damn sure wouldn't have ended with him being found innocent.
The same can be said for Steven Avery. The only reason Making A Murderer even exists is that he settled that now-famous $36 million lawsuit he'd filed against the Manitowoc County Sheriffs Department for just $400,000 and used that money to pay for his defense in the Teresa Halbach case. If not for that, he wouldn't have been able to afford those lawyers.
Another true crime documentary that captured the hearts of the nation last year, HBO's The Jinx, centered around Robert Durst, a man so wealthy he could probably murder you right now and come up with enough money to avoid any severe repercussions for it.
Provided he remembers to turn his microphone off when he's not on camera.
It's a subject that comes up directly in another fantastic but less-known documentary called The Staircase. It covers the trial of a man named Michael Peterson, who was convicted of murdering his wife. He blamed her death on a fall down a set of stairs (hence the name). At one point, when discussing the exorbitant costs of his legal defense ($800,000 at that point), he says this:
"What do people do who don't have any money? The rich get off? Well, the only reason the rich get off is because they can afford to defend themselves. The damn poor go to jail because they can't afford to defend themselves. Period. Not in every case, of course, but that's pretty much it. What would somebody do in my case? They'd be hopeless in finding experts or somebody to come in and prove this didn't happen. American justice is very, very expensive."
But watching the documentary on YouTube is totally free!
That's the goddamn truth, and it doesn't just apply to big-ticket crimes like rape and murder. Even for low-level offenses, poor people tend to spend more time in jail or face otherwise more severe punishment than the rich, simply because they can't afford the various fines and court fees that come with a misdemeanor charge.
To bring it all back to Steven Avery, think back on what really sealed his fate in the Teresa Halbach case. It was the coerced confession made by his nephew, Brendon Dassey, a 16-year-old high school student with an IQ of 70 whose court-appointed public defender allowed him to be interviewed several times by police without a lawyer or his parents present. His confession was the foundation the case against Avery was built on, and it likely never would have happened if Dassey was being represented by a competent lawyer at the time.
Almost immediately after Making A Murderer premiered on Netflix, petitions calling for the government to pardon Steven Avery made the rounds online and gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures. It's a nice sentiment, but completely pointless, seeing as how the president can only issue pardons in federal cases.
Even if the desired outcome was possible, putting our collective efforts into righting this one potentially huge wrong seems misguided to me. Poor people getting screwed by the American justice system is an epidemic. Focusing only on the individual cases that land on our radar thanks to the shows we watch or the podcasts we listen to and rallying around those examples does nothing to address the larger problem. Our court system, for all intents and purposes, makes being poor a crime in and of itself. If we're asking the government to fix things, we should probably start there.
Adam is innocent. Follow him on Twitter @adamtodbrown.