A young woman, covered in blood and mouthing the word “help” stumbles in front of a home under construction. Luckily — or bizarrely — an assistant chief of police’s son happens to be in his car across the street.
To hear him tell it, this red-soaked woman barely escaped a crazed roofer. He even shows off a gash in his leg, a sign of valor and proof. The roofer is booked in no time. Justice has been served, right?
Not exactly. Sheila Berry thinks it was an attempt to cover up a rape. She puts it this way: “In that town, facts don’t get in law enforcement’s way.”
The local true-crime author and justice advocate spent 11 years as director of victim assistance in the district attorney’s office of Appleton, Wisconsin. Fans of the hit Netflix series “Making a Murderer” immediately will recognize the town’s name. It’s the home of Leonard Kachinsky, the defense attorney who prompted negative reactions among some fans of the series.
The frantic roofer story didn’t make headlines, Berry notes. But the sheer number of wrongful conviction cases began to bug her. With her husband, Doug, she started Truth in Justice, an educational resource about wrongful convictions. It helps people connect with the Innocence Project, a national litigation group that’s involved with the cases popularized in the podcast “Serial.” Berry says infotainment series are turning her work into a household concern. Indeed, “Serial” gained such a strong following that on June 30 news outlets scrambled to report that a defendant was being given a new trial.
The conviction of innocent people is a nagging national problem. The National Registry of Exonerations reports that 149 people were exonerated last year — about three people a week. Most were jailed for an average of 14 years. Homicide cases like the ones featured in the show led to stomach-churning stats: Three of every four homicide exonerations exposed officials who withheld evidence or coerced witnesses and defendants.
Berry says an entertaining narrative helps readers cope with the “cognitive dissonance” that comes with homicide cases. She doesn’t believe these series are unethical, as some have criticized.
“You hear the gory details, and your mind begins to think, ‘Oh this is something terrible, just convict someone already,’” she says, referring to a scene in “Making a Murderer” where viewers see a pelvic bone supposedly belonging to Avery’s would-be victim. “But I can go out and buy a human pelvis for less than a hundred dollars and drop it anywhere. Getting a conviction isn’t the same as knowledge beyond reasonable doubt.”
Agreement can be heard from Mary Kelly Tate, director of the Institute for Actual Innocence at the University of Richmond.
“I think we have reached a critical point in the dialogue on criminal justice policies in this country,” she says. “The death-penalty system especially is haunted by concrete, definitive examples of convictions that are simply erroneous. The hard part —real reform — is politically complicated. But these shows play a part in moving along the dialogue.”
There’s still the question of rabid fans. When random internet surfers try to meet witnesses, as happened after “Serial,” it seems like a major wrench in the machine. Berry doesn’t advocate that level of devotion. She prefers to write it out.
Consider Berry’s book about the Penny Brummer case, “Who Killed Sarah?” She dramatizes Brummer’s lesbian orientation and shows how it could have been the conviction factor. The Huffington Post called it a chilling drama that eschews bleeding heart sentimentality. Still, some readers have wondered whether dramatization should pass itself off as truth, despite Berry’s credentials and current work at law firm Thompson McMullan.
Lorrie Moore, writing for the New York Review of Books, says a lack of “cogent thesis-making” can give rise to “armchair sleuths and amateur psychologists.” But she argues that pointing out cultural prejudices, such as Berry’s focus on Brummer’s homosexuality, is what helps true-crime drama succeed.
Moore argues that “Making a Murderer” missed a chance to discuss a prevalent German attitude in Wisconsin, called mitläufer. That is, going along to get along, or accepting the charge of guilt against defendants as a done deal.
Berry too has a critique of the series, but sees it at as fuel for her next book.
“It was really hard for me to watch my former hometown become a Netflix series,” she says. “I mean, I know some of those sons of bitches. But it’s also filled me with ideas and healthy skepticism. You begin to see how life mirrors fiction.
“In real life, there’s foreshadowing. Just because true crime drama reads smoothly, doesn’t make it any less true.” S