How Netflix is breeding a new generation of miscarriage of justice lawyers

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By Katie King on

Making a Murderer, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, The Confession Tapes and more are piquing law students’ interest

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Miscarriages of justice, though tedious, time-consuming and technicality-heavy, have long proved a tantalising area of law for students. Now, the advent of the Netflix crime documentary era has made it all the more attractive.

Tales of criminal injustice on our TV screens did not begin with the red-logoed livestreaming service. But Netflix has produced the goods, including: Amanda Knox, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, The Confession Tapes, Making a Murderer, Into the Abyss, Death by Fire and West of Memphis. It’s become such a thing, users of the service can now enjoy American Vandal — a satire of the true crime shows Netflix has become so closely associated with.

What Netflix has changed in the miscarriage of justice documentary scene is the scale of distribution, rather than the content, says Margot Ravenscroft.

The director of Amicus ALJ, Ravenscroft believes: “These documentaries assist in trying to highlight some of the blatant miscarriages of justice occurring in the criminal justice system.” More accessibility means more engagement with the issues and, subsequently, more pro-activity on the part of TV viewers — great news for a charity fighting for justice on death row like Amicus.

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In recent times, Ravenscroft has traced a higher level of interest in Amicus and its cases from students and from lawyers; she thinks Netflix might have something to do with it. She explains:

“I do get feedback that the shows pique [students and lawyers’] interest in issues that they hadn’t thought of before. The documentaries certainly educate people that would perhaps have thought ‘there’s no smoke without fire’. I think people are really understanding these cases are more nuanced than they perhaps thought in the past and there’s not a distinct line between innocence and guilt.”

It’s not just Amicus, which works with clients on death row, feeling the benefits. Suzanne Gower, the managing director of the Centre for Criminal Appeals, a UK organisation, believes recent documentaries have been “really valuable in publicising the problem of wrongful convictions and giving people an insight into how they can occur”. Importantly, she adds:

“No doubt they’ve also helped inspire many of the excellent volunteers we have helping us.”

It is, of course, very difficult to draw a conclusive link between a rise in Netflix documentaries and a rise in student interest. A stronger ethos of pro bono, particularly in the face of recent legal aid cuts, and a stronger desire among students to bolster their CVs may also help explain the demand.

But even law students concede documentaries are having an impact. Chloë Arnold, who is in her final year at Oxford Brookes and is currently working as an Amicus student rep, tells us:

“I often have students approach after my talks and mention these documentaries as the starting point on their interest in Amicus, referring to the fact they didn’t realise ‘stuff like this can happen in the States’.”

But is using TV to build your career path wise? The director of LPC programmes at BPP University, Jo-Anne Pugh, recently expressed concern about students relying too heavily on shows like Suits to frame their understanding of legal practice.

Though we’re sure there’s at least an element of sensationalism on the part of miscarriage of justice film-makers, Ravenscroft does believe “the issues encountered in these documentaries are very familiar to capital lawyers”. Expect to see questionable prosecutorial conduct (The Confession Tapes), racism (Time: The Kalief Browder Story) and mental health issues (Making a Murderer). It also perhaps helps that “most death row cases are stranger than fiction”.

But it’s not praise all round. Because most documentaries cover American cases, Gower fears some viewers may be led to believe wrongful convictions aren’t such an issue in the UK. That would be a big misconception:

“Legal aid cuts, widespread police and CPS disclosure failings, and misapplication of forensic science are all live issues here and are landing innocent people in prison… We’d love to see a Netflix series that exposed this country’s closed criminal justice system.”

Impact on the viewer aside, fans of Time: The Kalief Browder Story will know it’s not always beneficial to have a media spotlight on miscarriage of justice cases. The impact on the victim can be adverse, and this is particularly true if the shows cover live, ongoing matters.

Then there’s the issue of commitment to the project. Though Making a Murderer, for example, was a long-term journalistic venture, time is not a luxury all crime documentary makers have. One case Ravenscroft is currently working on has been going on for 37 years — who could, or rather who would want to, invest in following a case like that to its conclusion?

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