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Criminal Justice Seminar Focuses on ‘Making a Murderer’ Documentary Series


On a recent Wednesday afternoon at Brooklyn Law School, a group of students in a criminal justice seminar acted as a panel of judges, directing pointed questions at a classmate who was arguing that his client deserved a change of venue.

“You’re not going to find jurors who’ve never heard of your client,” one student-judge said.

“Why can’t we just bring in jurors from other counties instead?” asked another. “And how are you going to limit the pretrial publicity about this case that already exists?”

The student at the podium gathered his thoughts, conferred with his co-counsel and reargued his case, emphasizing that a change of venue was appropriate because of the state’s role in promulgating adverse publicity against his client, who was accused of sexual assault and attempted murder. Ultimately, the judges refused the motion. But Professors Jocelyn Simonson and Bennett Capers, who teach the seminar, weren’t surprised—the real-life case’s defense attorney hadn’t fared much better.

The exercise was part of a seminar exploring some of the legal issues depicted in the Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer.” The series examines the conviction and 18-year prison sentence of Steven Avery for sexual assault and attempted murder, his release from prison after DNA evidence led to his exoneration, and the later arrest and prosecution of Avery and his nephew on new charges of kidnapping, sexual assault, and homicide.

Simonson, a former public defender, and Capers, a former prosecutor, are using clips of the 10-part documentary, along with trial transcripts, and additional readings, to provide real-life examples of criminal law, criminal procedure, evidence, professional ethics, sentencing, and appellate review topics covered in this capstone course.

“We’ve already done a couple of great simulations, including having students put themselves in the position of both prosecutors and defense lawyers,” said Capers. “We’ve also tackled recurring problems in the criminal justice system such as witness misidentifications, cognitive biases, and the interrogation of juveniles.”

Simonson added, “It has been a pleasure to engage in nuanced discussions with our students about how they would approach real-life cases if they had been in the lawyers’ shoes, especially since many of our students have jobs lined up as prosecutors and defense attorneys upon graduation.”

In addition to taking a turn at arguing some of the same motions filed in the real cases against Avery, students conduct research and write briefs, examine and cross-examine witnesses, and think critically about broader criminal justice issues.

Nathaniel Myers ’17 said the course is edifying and engaging, and he appreciates that it takes students beyond the documentary by examining the case through a legal lens.

“The class poses a unique opportunity for students to gain practical experience, which cannot be attained through normal courses or moots,” he said.

Hannah Rogers ‘17 said she appreciates that the class is taught by a former prosecutor and former defense attorney, which helps students explore the legal issues in the series and discuss where the criminal justice system sometimes fails people.

“Professors Capers and Simonson have done a great job engaging the class as well as bringing their professional experience to a deeper exploration of the complex and entrenched issues exposed in the documentary series,” she said.