The White House has responded to the more than 100,000 people who signed a petition to ask President Barack Obama to pardon Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, the subjects of Netflix’s Making a Murderer who are both in prison for Teresa Halbach’s murder.
This is extraordinary, the White House responding to real-life events that the country is now aware of because of a Netflix reality series.
Unfortunately, even after watching 10 hours of the fantastic, well-produced series, the 129,895 people who signed the petition don’t seem to understand one fundamental part of the case: Steven Avery was tried and convicted by the state of Wisconsin, not the federal government, which means the President of the United States doesn’t have any actual power.
Here’s the beginning of the White House’s patient response to the petition:
Thank you for signing a We the People petition on the Teresa Halbach murder case, currently featured on the “Making a Murderer” documentary series. We appreciate your interest in this case.
To best respond to your petition, we should go over what exactly presidential pardoning power entails.
The U.S. Constitution grants the power of clemency to the President:
“The President … shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States.”
This clemency authority empowers the President to exercise leniency towards persons who have committed federal crimes. Under the Constitution, only federal criminal convictions, such as those adjudicated in the United States District Courts, may be pardoned by the President. In addition, the President’s pardon power extends to convictions adjudicated in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and military court-martial proceedings. However, the President cannot pardon a state criminal offense.
Since Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey are both state prisoners, the President cannot pardon them. A pardon in this case would need to be issued at the state level by the appropriate authorities.
The response goes on to discuss Obama’s commitment to “restoring the sense of fairness at the heart of our justice system,” but overall it the response is a very nice, understandably condescending way of saying: Um, no, please learn about the law, thanks.
Both Avery and Dassey, especially, may be deserving of pardons or at least new trials, but the person with the power to grant pardons, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, has made it clear he will not. Walker has pardoned a total of zero people during his tenure as governor, and his press secretary told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
“Those who feel they have been wrongly convicted can seek to have their convictions overturned by a higher court.”
Petitions reveal Making a Murderer’s negative side effect
The White House’s commitment to responding to any petition that gets over 100,000 signatures is an impressive way of allowing a relatively small number of people to get the attention of their government, but it also illustrates that sometimes citizens aren’t quite informed.
One of the petitions bundled into the response misspells the word “retry” in its title; another starts with “We the people understand the basic context and theory of justice. We also understand the definition of due process.” and then goes on to “ask that the President puts forth a motion to the Governor of Wisconsin.” A what?
These illustrate one of the interesting and/or problematic consequences of shows like Making a Murderer: the series is so powerful that it convinces us that we understand everything.
Yet some people don’t even understand the most basic parts, and others run around on social media convicting people they’ve determined are actually guilty based on what they’ve seen on Netflix and maybe read on the Internet.
In the case of Steven Avery, Brendan Dassey, and Making a Murderer, that is pretty ironic, considering the series does make it clear that one of the central problems in the investigation and prosecution of the murder was a rush to judgement.