New class based on Netflix’s 'Making a Murderer' offered at U of U

University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law Professor Shima Baradaran Baughman created a new seminar course appropriately titled “Making a Murderer,” which debuted this semester. (Photo: University of Utah)

(KUTV) -- University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law Professor Shima Baradaran Baughman created a new seminar course titled “Making a Murderer,” which debuted this semester and is titled after the Netflix documentary of the same name.

The course was designed to teach students how to use criminal justice issues raised in the case in the 10-episode documentary series to teach law students about flaws in the legal process.

Baughman's students view clips from the documentary about whether two defendants —Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey —were guilty of murdering photographer Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc County Wisconsin in 2005, or if they’d been framed by police and unethically prosecuted by a broken justice system.

Law students additionally review copies of trial transcripts and other readings to reexamine Avery’s two prosecutions and the prosecution of Dassey at every stage.

They then argue motions, examine and cross-examine witnesses as a training exercise and conduct independent research, a press release stated.

“This is a really good case study of criminal justice in general and all of the problems we have —including tainting of juries, improper investigation, DNA evidence and contamination of evidence, prosecutorial ethics, when to change venues, ineffective counsel and many other issues,” said Baughman in a news release.

“Using the case as a way to teach those topics is amazing,” she added.

The case was particularly unusual because Avery had been wrongfully convicted and spent 18 years in prison for a brutal sexual assault and the attempted murder of Wisconsin woman Penny Beernsten in 1985. DNA evidence exonerated Avery in 2003, and he became the face of how eyewitness identification can go wrong.

A jury convicted Avery in 2007. Dassey was also convicted, based on a confession during an interrogation process many who’ve viewed the series believe was unfair and coerced by police.

Dassey’s conviction was overturned in 2016 by a federal judge who ruled that his constitutional rights were violated by police who coerced him into a confession. The judge ordered Dassey’s release from prison, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit blocked the release until an appeal could be heard.

In December 2017, a panel of the Seventh Circuit voted to uphold Dassey’s original conviction. His case now awaits further appeal.

Third-year law student Mary Royal had heard about “Making a Murderer” but hadn’t watched the series before she started Baughman’s class. She said in a news releases that she enjoys fierce debate among classmates over how the case played out.

“‘The Making a Murderer’ class is vastly different from any class I have previously taken at the law school. It allows us to have open and honest discussion about the justice system and the areas which are in desperate need of reform. Each week my friends and I gather together and watch the assigned episode of the documentary and discuss it together. It's become our weekly 'movie night' tradition that we look forward to,” stated Royal in the release.

On Thursday, Baughman's students get an up-close-and-personal account of the case with a visit from defense attorney Dean Strang.

Strang, whose role in representing Avery is chronicled in the Netflix series, is expected to discuss the case from his point of view and allow students to ask questions about the experience.

The 9 a.m. event is free and open to the public. It will take place in the sixth floor moot courtroom of the law school, 383 South University Street.

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