How Making a Murderer is teaching US law students

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Steven AveryImage copyright Netflix

Millions of people around the world were gripped by Netflix documentary Making a Murderer in 2015.

The series focused on Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey, who were convicted of murdering Teresa Halbach in 2005.

The University of Utah is now offering law students the chance to learn about the US criminal justice system through questions raised by the case.

Classes will cover ethics, DNA, and juvenile rights, among other things.

Professor Shima Baughman, who set up the course, says she wants to make law school “more unique” for students.

Her class features transcripts of the trial and a visit from one of the case’s defence lawyers, Dean Strang, who told Newsbeat law students can help change America’s criminal justice system.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Steven Avery was convicted of murdering a photographer in 2005

Steven Avery’s case was unusual because he had been wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder in 1985.

He spent 18 years in prison but was exonerated in 2003 because of DNA evidence. In 2007, a jury convicted him of a separate crime – murdering Ms Halbach.

As viewers watched the story unravel over ten episodes, questions were asked about whether the defendants were guilty or if they had been framed by police.

The complex issues in the case led to Professor Baughman creating the Making a Murderer course for students to re-examine Mr Avery’s two prosecutions.

“The class filled up within the first hour of registration,” she told Newsbeat. “I’ve had students that have watched the show five times. It’s making their law school experience a more unique one.”

Image copyright University of Utah
Image caption Professor Shima Baughman created a class based on Netflix documentary Making a Murder

Professor Baughman’s course covers ethics, DNA, interviews, juvenile rights, the duties of a prosecutor and how to defend well.

It also looks at Brendan Dassey’s murder conviction, which was overturned in 2016 after a judge ruled police had coerced him into a confession when he was 16.

The judge ordered Mr Dassey to be released from prison, but the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit blocked the order until an appeal could be heard.

The Seventh Circuit voted to uphold Dassey’s original conviction last December. His case now awaits further appeal.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Brendan Dassey’s case is awaiting further appeal

Professor Baughman says she wants to use the criminal justice issues in the case to teach her students about flaws in the legal process.

Law student Ana Asensio, who’s 20, says the course has inspired herself and other students to do pro-bono (free) work in the future.

“Now I want to focus on helping prisoners who feel they are innocent and those who don’t have the means to get a lawyer,” Ana says.

Steven Avery’s defence lawyer Dean Strang has visited students as part of the course.

He said: “I want to be involved in thinking through how we might improve the safety and reliability of our criminal justice institutions.”

He says law students are “the very age group that will be running those institutions within a few years.”

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Dean Strang was Steven Avery’s defence lawyer

Dean worked alongside Jerome Buting and the pair have been celebrated by viewers online since the documentary’s release.

“I remain very surprised, almost dumbstruck. I did not foresee anything like the impact this documentary has had,” he says.

Actress Kristen Bell even tweeted a piece of fan art featuring the lawyers that has been shared by thousands.

A new series called Convicting a Murderer will look more closely at the prosecution’s side of the case and is due to air in the coming year.

A second season of Making a Murderer, which will focus on Brendan Dassey, will come out on Netflix later this year.

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