The Expense of Making a Murderer: Brendan Dassey’s Reality

CREDIT: Barbara Tadych via People

Three episodes. It took exactly three hour-long episodes until the name Brendan Dassey was mentioned. From the very beginning of Netflix’s documentary, Making a Murderer, the audience’s focus has been on Steven Avery’s innocence in the two cases that are shown to us, and for a while, they do a pretty remarkable job in depicting this – that is until news of Brendan Dassey’s interrogation video is brought up for the first time. In a terrifying confession to the murder of Teresa Halbach, Dassey describes the horrific details of the sexual assault and murder that Avery is accused of committing. It is this confession that puts the name Brendan Dassey into the public’s eye, and levels him with his Uncle – Steven Avery – in the case. Brendan’s case, however, presents an almost completely opposing situation. We are told the mental incapabilities that Brendan possesses, we see him change his alibi/confession over and over again, we see anyone who represents an authoritative figure to Brendan manipulate him into saying anything they wanted to hear but what we don’t see is true representation of Brendan in the case, or much from his trial in comparison to Steven Avery’s trial.

Brendan’s official trial began in April of 2007 weeks after the verdict had already been placed, and the trial of Steven Avery had ended. Throughout its entirety, both cases had been highly profiled all over the media making it very likely that it was all anyone saw when they tuned in their radios, or changed the channel on their T.V. While it was mentioned that Brendan did not commit the actual murder of Teresa Halbach, he seems to be charged with similar if not the same accounts of Steven, and yet, his trial lasted only nine days compared to Avery’s that lasted a total of twenty-seven days. Making a Murderer only, shockingly, spends one episode out of a total of ten on Brendan’s trial. This raises the question, why? Why is it that Brendan’s case only seems to have a very limited exposure compared to Avery’s though they are being charged for the same crime that the two of them supposedly committed? One of the possibilities can be chalked up to it being such a short trial, that it possibly did not have the audience as captivated as the trial of Avery. Does this limited exposure of Brendan’s case really affect the way in which the audience perceives the trial? Or perhaps, did it affect the way the jury voted in Brendan’s case? With the story being so focused on Steven Avery, it is safe to say that we lose sight of who the case is about, Teresa Halbach, but we also lose sight of the manipulation, the lies, and the complete lack of intelligence that comes from the Brendan Dassey case. Is it Brendan’s limited exposure throughout the case, and throughout the Making a Murderer that caused the unfair trial, leading to an unfair verdict or is it the reason in which he is able to have the possibility of parole? There was not a way in which Making a Murderer could have been made without the mention of Brendan Dassey, however, keeping the focus on what footage, or any means of proof that would be beneficial in helping to prove Avery’s innocence is what was chosen, which means the less of Brendan Dassey that the audience sees, the better it will be for Avery. The purpose was to leave out anything that wasn’t extremely necessary in Dassey’s case while only adding enough to encourage the audience of Avery’s innocence. This is why the show only brushes over Brendan’s trial, or that the footage shown was there to confuse the audience of what really happened. Nothing that this show does is anything but intentional, and leaving the majority of  Brendan’s case out is only one of the problems. The makers of this documentary clearly did just about anything possible to make clear that Steven is in the same situation as before, with Brendan merely being an afterthought.

From the very beginning of episode one, the audience is compelled to hurt with Steven Avery, a victim of the broken justice system. The Documentarians commonly employ pathos (emotional appeals) to ensure that their audience leaves the show screaming for justice for a man that has been convicted of yet another crime he claims he did not commit. In episode one, we are given the backstory of Steven’s first conviction and eventual acquittal. They share the heartbreaking story of Steven’s fight for justice while behind bars for 18 years. The audience is left angry yet relieved because although he wrongly suffered, at least he is finally free. In episode two, the audience is made aware of the lawsuit being filed against the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department in hopes of gaining financial compensation as payment for all of the years Steven lost. At this point, the audience is still left on Steven’s side but it is clear that a shift is coming when news of Teresa Halbach’s disappearance becomes public and Steven Avery is suspect number one.

As we enter episode three, it becomes clear that there is something strange surrounding this case, primarily because Steven is once again calling for freedom. The documentarians clearly stake their ground on the side of Steven Avery and are going to do whatever it takes to convince you of his innocence, even share the gruesome details of a confession that make your stomach churn. You see almost everyone that was in Steven’s corner turn against him once he is arrested for Teresa’s murder. While they may do their due diligence by briefly entertaining the idea of Avery’s guilt, it is always very brief and immediately “proved” wrong or implausible. Even in the midst of concrete evidence against him, the documentarians try their hardest to instill a belief of innocence in their viewers’ hearts and minds. The audience spends the remainder of the series being taken on an emotional rollercoaster with only one end: Steven being found innocent, or at least they hope. 

One primary way in which they try to convince the audience of Stevens’ innocence is through their portrayal of Brendan Dassey. They make sure he is seen as unreliable, of below average intelligence, and ultimately a victim of the investigators’ manipulation tactics. The audience is shown footage of him claiming how confused he is and how the investigators forced him to confess to the crime. So now, the audience not only cares for Steven, but now his poor, naive nephew Brendan as well. We are left not only hurting for all the injustice carried out against Steven but now this kid that can barely read, let alone rape and murder a woman. While they are very intentional to keep Brendan in the backseat and Steven at the front, they are very strategic in the way they insert Brendan in the series to elicit an emotional response from viewers. He is conveniently placed in moments where the audience could very easily turn against Steven and serves as a reminder of whose side the audience is supposed to be on. Even in the episodes following their convictions, Brendan’s fight for justice is only shown in order to further the idea that the system is out to get them and cannot be trusted. It is never just about Brendan and the likelihood that he is actually innocent. Everything revolves around creating an emotional connection between Steven Avery and anyone with access to Netflix so that people will do things like write letters to the President insisting that Steven be pardoned (which did actually happen). The Documentarians are not looking to show the audience justice or truth, they are looking to get Steven Avery out of prison.

Even though there is a lot of rhetoric, and nearly every aspect of Steven’s case is covered from every person involved, Brendan appears to be an afterthought not only in the original case overall, but in the making of the documentary as well. Throughout the interviews, especially with family members of the Avery family, it is almost peculiar how little they mention Brendan throughout the whole process of the murder case. His Grandparents discuss and are outraged at the fact that their son is being wrongfully imprisoned again, however they don’t seem much concerned at all at the fact that Brendan’s life is being taken away, and it is very likely that whether Steven committed the murder, Brendan’s involvement was little to none.

Though the documentary shows obvious bias towards Steven’s side through filming and interviews, it seems unlikely that they would leave pieces out that would show the rest of the Avery family more strongly showing support for a member of their family that is supposed to be such a tight knit community within itself. On the other side of this though, with how much they leave out in support of Steven Avery, it stands to reason the fact that they should leave out much of the family abandoning Brendan and even seemingly out casting his mother as well from the family. They seem to downplay very much the fact of how much Steven’s mother and Avery’s grandmother adamantly was against Brendan and his mother for hurting Steven’s case, and seemed to show little remorse when teaming back up again after Brendan recanted his statement.

Moreover, we have very little conversation from Brendan in the same way that we have large portions of Steven speaking on the telephone throughout the documentary series, explaining his thoughts, his feelings, and his side throughout the entire process. On the contrary, it seems as though the documentarians want to have other people speak on behalf of Brendan, such as his mother and father, in order to display the kind of person he is. Between his interrogation tape, other people’s interviews including his family and his lawyers, and really the only sort of speaking or interview we get from his outside of original footage with his letter to the public from prison, it almost feels as though the documentarians are sending a message about Brendan.

They don’t want Brendan speaking for himself here, because he flips to much back and forth based on what other people around him are telling him to say or do, and it would most likely seem obvious if he was at all interviewed, over the phone or in any other way, that they were trying to get him to say things to make Steven appear more innocent. Instead, they show throughout that most people believe Brendan almost is not capable of speaking for himself, and they try to show this in subliminal ways throughout the first season.

It is also an interesting piece how little they show of Brendan’s case versus that of Steven’s throughout both of their original trials. Brendan’s case’s screen time is short, and essentially it boils down to the fact that it seems obvious his confession was coerced, and that much of what he confessed to was pretty much fed to him by those interrogating him. We are appealed to feel bad for Steven for so long however that it seems odd how straightforward they portray Brendan’s case, they don’t seem to play on the innocent man in prison emotions as much for Brendan, and it speaks volumes to the motives of this documentary, rather than search for the truth and possibly free a kid even if it may put Steven Avery in prison firmly, they use Brendan as an emotional piece to fit their goals for Steven.

Even though the second season is seemingly more equal as far as screen time goes between Brendan and Steven, the second season is filled with the appeals, and much more of the legal process not as interesting to the average True Crime fan watching these and rooting for Steven throughout the first season. And yet, despite this, it seems like many people walk away from this documentary unsure of Steven, but perfectly clear Brendan is a young adult caught in the middle of something that goes way above him. The documentary makers want you to feel bad for the 18 years Steven lost, but it should be worth noting that Brendan has already lost 15, and unless something is done quickly for him, he will lose another 27 from this point here in 2021. He will lose his life between the ages of 16-59, he was pulled from class in high school one day and the next time he will be free will be not long before his sixtieth birthday for something he doesn’t even seem to be able to fully comprehend. He doesn’t seem to understand what he is caught up in throughout most of the process, and it seems clear more than anything he is a scared and confused kid just wanting to get home, and it’s about time for that to happen before his whole life is taken away.

For up to date news, and how you can get involved in Brendan’s case, visit freebrendan.com. For further content on a variety of True Crime topics from the Consuming True Crime team, click here.

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