I Am An American “Criminal”

An American "Criminal"

As we who take an interest in this case go about propounding, debunking, implicating, and sleuthing, I think it is important to keep in mind that the stated objective of Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, the Making A Murderer filmmakers, was to open up a discussion about the shape of criminal justice in the United States.  But for those who have taken care to heed the wishes of the filmmakers, I would argue that it is possible, even necessary to take those conclusions to their logical end and examine what they say about America as a whole.  

What better lens is there than a country’s justice system through which to view, and hopefully gain an understanding of the passions and prejudices which animate a particular society?  I can hardly claim any originality for this view either as it was no less a towering figure within the realm of letters than Fyodor Dostoyevsky himself who once opined, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”.  What, then, is the degree of civilization within American society?

To the uninitiated, all that the vast and sprawling gulag at the center of American life represents may require a little unravelling, but all the ingredients needed to comprehend the American psyche are there: race relations, class relations, views on morality, income inequalities, and so forth.  The core of the American heart, if you will, is nowhere else as neatly bound up as it is in this criminal justice system of ours.  Therefore, those with an interest in human rights, economics, and even geopolitics—there are few realms into which the muscular and far reaching tentacles of the American colossus does not reach— will improve their understanding of these topics dramatically by paying attention to what goes on in, of all places, American criminal courts.

Because Making A Murderer could take under consideration one event in one place at one time, it would be easy to think that what you witnessed was an anomaly.  But it wasn’t an anomaly.  If it had been, the filmmakers exhortation for others to use the series as a jumping off point to discuss the American system would have been mystifying.  The kinds of outrageous that you saw in the series are not only common in American courts, they are to be expected, and if Ken Kratz, Thomas Fassbender, Mark Weigert, Len Kuchinsky and the other characters that Making A Murderer illuminated are viewed as villains, it must be recognized that they were all propped up not only by their local community, but also the currents and customs of American jurisprudence which inevitably imparts its own color and biases to all which is codified in law books.  As such it could be said that the way justice is dispensed in America, and the Avery and Dassey cases were no exceptions,  expresses a distinctive American attitude toward justice.

It is only when this grim reality is fully recognized does it become starkly apparent that when it comes to notions of justice, America may as well be thought to stand alone on the remotest island in the south pacific, or maybe even another planet.  Even in North Korea and Iran it would be unthinkable, so far as I know,  to send kids to jail for wearing sagging trousers.  But in America this exact thing actually happens.  It even has a name that most Americans are even familiar with by now: The school to prison pipeline.  If you happen to be one of my readers from Europe, or, heck North Korea, even, does your country have such a thing?  Does it feel like it needs one?

But the most concerning point of departure from the rest of the world is the shear magnitude of our mass imprisonment program.  We imprison more people than any other country.  This is not just on a per capita basis, but in absolute numbers.  This is an important distinction because if China, let’s say, imprisoned as many people as America does, it would not deserve the title as World’s Prison Warden because there are a lot more people in China.

But this is not the only thing which makes our prison program unique.  We retain capital punishment which almost all of the rest of the civilized world has abolished, and we retain LWOP, Life Without Parole for juveniles.  We also try people who the rest of the world considers children as adults.  We also have far, far more people entombed in solitary confinement than the rest of the world.  And in most places, a punishment such as this is regarded as torture.  Not here where men might languish decades in solitary.

Most societies no longer officially sanction stigmatizing people on the basis of race, ethnicity, or religion.  But there is still one realm within whose precincts it is still officially acceptable and even encouraged to stigmatize as much as one pleases.  And though this stigmatizing and punishing impulse may not be unique to America, there is nowhere else but here than it can be so lavishly indulged across so complete a sampling of the populace.  Though we may think of a stigma as something unofficial and imposed upon an individual by other members of that individual’s society, in America, this process of stigmatization is state sponsored, and it is the state which assumes a leading role in this process.  Those who bear the mark of “criminal”, one that is often affixed after even an arrest, or affiliation with the wrong crowd, no conviction required, suddenly become eligible to be on the receiving end of of our society’s meanest tendencies which will unremittingly and forever and anon impinge upon work, education, housing, relationships, parenting, and civic involvement.  Yes, being a criminal in America is a permanent condition which has no sunset.  And for all that, none of these official exclusions can quite capture what it feels like to be shunned by the rest of society as “criminal”.

What it means to officially be branded a “criminal” is one thing I can speak about with authority, because it is this stigmata which I bear for having committed the crime of burglary and strangulation.

To be continued