On Tuesday, Jan. 26, at 6:30 p.m. in Room 1302, Western Wyoming Community College and the Criminal Justice Program will host “Making a Murderer: A Public Discussion,” which will look at issues of criminal justice and due process in today’s American legal system. The program takes as its starting point the popular and controversial Netflix docuseries “Making a Murderer,” which follows a years-long murder case in which police and prosecutorial conduct have been challenged and standard assumptions about guilt, innocence and reasonable doubt have been questioned.
Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Traci Ciepiela, who spent 15 years in law enforcement before moving to the classroom, will lead a public discussion about the Manitowoc, Wisc. case profiled in the Netflix documentary, and she will compare it to similar court cases in which police and prosecutor bias, motive and conduct have been questioned. Clips from the Netflix docuseries will be shown during the program.
The case featured in the Netflix docuseries focuses on Steven Avery, a man who was wrongfully convicted of rape and spent many years behind bars before DNA evidence exonerated him. During the course of a subsequent lawsuit against the police department that was alleged to have ignored exculpatory evidence in his wrongful conviction, Avery was arrested by the same department on suspicion of a heinous murder, for which he and a relative were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. The documentary has offered a critical view of police and prosecution conduct in the case, and, in the wake of the show’s popularity, more than 200,000 people have signed petitions asking that Avery’s conviction be overturned.
Ciepiela will discuss how the case in “Making a Murderer” developed and will review other, similar cases to demonstrate how and why mistakes can and do happen in the pursuit of justice. Topics will include the types of evidence that are used by prosecutors and defense attorneys and an explanation of what reasonable doubt is and why it’s used as the standard of conviction for criminal trials.
“As a police officer, I took seriously my ability to restrict someone’s basic right of freedom before I made any arrests,” Ciepiela said. “I had to also make sure that when I sent the report and the evidence to the prosecutor, there was enough evidence to file charges and ultimately put someone in prison.
“Is Steven Avery guilty? I don’t know,” she added. “But were there things that occurred in this particular case that I find questionable? Absolutely. I am sure people have a lot of questions, and we will try to answer some of those during this program.”
“Making a Murderer: A Public Discussion” is a prelude of sorts for two upcoming “You Be The Judge” community education events at Western, scheduled for Thursday, Feb. 4, and Thursday, Feb. 11, at 6:30 p.m. each night. Local judges and attorneys will present sample civil and criminal cases, which are composites of actual court cases, and give the audience an opportunity to vote on the verdict. These events are free and open to the public. As with “Making a Murderer,” the “You Be The Judge” events are designed to illustrate how the judicial system functions and why verdicts and rulings that may seem to contradict the facts or emotions of a particular case may be in keeping with the requirements of the law and due process.
For more information about “Making a Murderer: A Public Discussion,” contact Prof. Ciepiela at (307) 382-1767 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about the upcoming “You Be The Judge” events, contact Marketing and Communication Coordinator Christopher Sheid at (307) 382-1661 or email him at email@example.com.