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New seasons of ‘Making a Murderer,’ ‘Serial’ should be reality check for true-crime fans

New editions of the Emmy-winning Netflix series and the Peabody Award-winning podcast get down to the nitty-gritty of a system that's not always about justice.

Kathleen Zellner (right), the post-conviction attorney for Steven Avery, with ballistics expert Luke Haag in a scene from Netflix's "Making a Murderer Part Two"
Kathleen Zellner (right), the post-conviction attorney for Steven Avery, with ballistics expert Luke Haag in a scene from Netflix's "Making a Murderer Part Two"Read moreCourtesy of Netflix

So much true-crime programming has come and gone since the premieres of the first Serial podcast and Netflix's Making a Murderer it's easy to forget that the people on whose convictions those two pop-culture phenomena famously cast doubt are still locked up.

Baltimore's Adnan Syed, whose case was the focus of Serial producer Sarah Koenig's Peabody Award-winning 2014 podcast, was convicted in 2000 of the murder of his former girlfriend, high school senior Hae Min Lee. Granted a new trial two years ago, he's still in prison, awaiting the results of the state of Maryland's latest appeal. Meanwhile, a new season of Serial, which premiered Sept. 20, has taken the true-crime podcast to the courtrooms of Cleveland for a closer look at how the justice system operates in less-celebrated cases.

In Wisconsin, Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey also remain behind bars. Convicted in 2007 of the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach, their cases were the focus of Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi's Emmy-winning 2015 documentary series Making a Murderer. Its suggestion that Avery may have been framed for Halbach's murder and that Dassey, who was a particularly immature 16-year-old at the time of the murder, was coerced into confessing to assisting him, helped make their cases a cause célèbre and even led to some misguided online petitions for the pair to receive a presidential pardon (something no president has the power to grant in a case involving state prisoners).

>>READ MORE: Netflix's 'Making a Murderer' making a splash

And as we see  in the 10-episode Making a Murderer Part Two, which premiered on Netflix on Friday, Oct. 19, the first series helped Avery attract a new lawyer, Kathleen Zellner, who's made a specialty of representing — and winning freedom for — those she believes to have been wrongfully convicted.

Zellner, a made-for-TV character if ever I've seen one, must have looked like a godsend not just to Avery, who maintains he's innocent, but to Demos and Ricciardi. Colorful, confident, and supremely quotable, she has a Twitter feed with 158,000 followers and she's not afraid to use it. No question she's the most dynamic element in the four episodes Netflix made available to critics.

"I told Steven Avery the same thing I tell everyone: 'If you hire me, and you're guilty, trust me, I'll do a way better job than the prosecutors. I will find out if you're guilty. We do testing — we can't control the results. The results will be turned over to both sides. So really think about this. You would have to be an idiot to hire me to prove that you're guilty,' " Zellner says.

She's also insistent that she's not there to get Avery off on some technicality, as a college friend of Halbach's says he fears she might.

"Courts at this level aren't letting people out on technicalities. I would say to the people on the Avery case: If this case is solid, if he's guilty, I'll fail. So there's nothing to worry about. But if it's not solid, and someone else did it, then I'm going to overturn it … and it's also something to be glad about, that our system of justice allows for that," Zellner says.

Just how much room it allows for that, though, is a question in the new installment, whose exploration of the post-conviction process may be more relevant to our understanding of the judicial system than anything in the first series. Getting it right the first time really does matter, because do-overs are rare.

"Once somebody's convicted, they have to move mountains to get out of prison," says Laura Nirider, one of the lawyers representing Dassey in his bid for freedom. "Our task now is to upend an entire system which, by design, is now weighted in favor of the prosecutors, in favor of the state, in favor of keeping this conviction in place."

And that, says Steve Drizin, another of Dassey's lawyers, has gotten even harder since 1996 and the Clinton-era federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which he calls "a direct response to the [1995] Oklahoma City bombing" by Timothy McVeigh.

The law, intentionally or not, "really tied the hands of federal court judges in the ways that they're allowed to review state court decisions," Drizin says.

How the justice system works, rather than how we kind of hope it works, has also been the focus of the third season of Serial, for which Koenig and reporter Emmanuel Dzotsi spent a year in and out of Cleveland's Justice Center, watching and recording courtroom proceedings, and chatting up prosecutors, defense lawyers, suspects, and others.

The impression I've had so far is that Cleveland's willingness to give Serial this level of access is the only remarkable thing about the way its justice system operates. And that's not great news.

Every week's a new story, though at least one, the case of the shooting death of 5-month-old Aavielle Wakefield, has had a continuing thread. Koenig isn't so much in sleuth mode here as she was in the case of Syed, but it's easy to hear the frustration she feels, both with the "no-snitch" culture that's likely protecting Aavielle's killer and with the detectives who settled, perhaps too easily, on suspect Davon Holmes, who spent a year in jail before charges were dropped.

"It's unsatisfying, I know," she says in the Oct. 11 episode, "Pleas Baby Pleas."

"The crime isn't solved. That's unsatisfying, obviously. But also, Davon sat accused for a year. That shouldn't have happened. When I asked around the Justice Center about it, people said, 'Yeah, that's a shame. But at least they corrected it.' No one was demanding an inquiry into what went wrong, or yowling for reform. No hand-wringing. It was more resignation, 'What're you gonna do?'

"Judges say they can't control what cases the prosecutors bring to them. Prosecutors say they're relying on the detectives. Detectives say their information is only as good as what the public coughs up — can they help it if people lie or withhold? I get it. When no one feels fully responsible for the outcome, when blame is spread out and diluted, a situation like Davon's becomes easier to shrug off."

Situations like Holmes' also are easier to shrug off because few people outside the system ever hear about them, and even fewer care to imagine themselves in the place of someone who acknowledges his criminal past even while denying he committed this particular crime.

If you're interested in protecting only the rights of perfect people, Holmes might not be a candidate for your sympathy.

Yet the same could be said of Avery, who, had filmmakers Demos and Ricciardi not come along, would likely be exactly where he is now, but with even less hope of ever leaving prison.

Maybe you still believe, as some of the people featured in Making a Murderer Part Two do, that Avery and Dassey are where they belong. But if you don't  — if stories of potentially wrongful convictions and people falling through the cracks stir you to anger — one takeaway from this new season, and that of Serial, is that this is the system we've acquiesced to, one in which truth isn't necessarily a priority.

And it will take a lot more than online petitions to make it better.