It’s taken close to ten years to tell the story of Steven Avery, the Wisconsin man unjustly imprisoned for sexual assault, exonerated by DNA evidence after 18 years, only to be charged with a second crime just two years later. But Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi, the filmmakers and co-creators of the Netflix ten-part documentary series, Making a Murderer, never considered giving up, they told the audience at Fortune's Most Powerful Women Next Gen conference in Laguna Nigel, Calif., on Tuesday.
“We made a commitment to our subject and each other,” said Demos.
The two filmmakers first became aware of Avery when they saw his picture on the front page of the New York Times, dressed in prison stripes and being charged with the second crime, a brutal murder which also implicated his young nephew. The unusual circumstances intrigued them. Speaking through letters and then later, prison visits, Avery gave them permission to report his story and access to his friends and family. “The more we stayed in it, the richer it got, the more twists and more reveals,” Demos said.
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Though it was unclear at the start whether he’d committed the murder, it was obvious that Avery had been failed by the criminal justice system the first time, back in 1985. “He had six-day-old twins when he was arrested,” said Ricciardi. “He’d lost [contact with] five children, and didn’t get so much as an apology,” she said. As a result, Avery had been in the process of suing the very county that had re-arrested him. “We really wanted to know, had the system evolved after these two decades,” said Ricciardi.
Fans of the show have reason to rejoice: Two more episodes are being edited right now, as the story is still unfolding. (They gave up no spoilers—sorry.) But the two filmmakers are now in the position of wondering whether their documentary affected the current thinking of the federal judge reviewing some aspects of the case. “He’s been very diligent,” says Ricciardi. “My hope would be that process was untainted by the series.”
But the two reminded the audience that the criminal justice system was the true subject of the documentary. “We think we have the best system in the world,” said Demos shaking her head. “But if you get pulled into it... it’ll be so clear what’s working and what’s not working."