The White House has responded to a petition asking President Obama to free convicted and subject of popular series "Making a Murderer" documentary series Steven Avery alongside his nephew Brendan Dassey.
The petition, which started last December, has garnered over 350,000 signatures as of Thursday, well over the 100,000-signature threshold that the White House says will get a response.
The petition started after Michael Seyedian, from Arvada, Colo., watched the series on Netflix and concluded that Mr. Avery and his nephew had been wrongly convicted for the 2005 murder of freelance photographer Teresa Halbach. Many viewers of the show joined Mr. Seyedian and started the hashtags #FreeStevenAvery and #MakingaMurderer urging other viewers to join in signing the petition.
Avery had previously spent 18 years in prison for a sexual assault that he was later found, through DNA evidence, not to have committed. He was released in 2003.
In an interview with the Huffpost Live, Avery’s defense lawyer said that the public has good motives to start a petition, but that it is only the discovery of new evidence that can exonerate Avery and Dassey.
Indeed, the White House in response to the petition released a statement on the change.org website saying that the president lacks jurisdiction to pardon state prisoners.
“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.”
In recent years, true-crime drama series have become wildly popular with the public.
"Serial" became the most downloaded podcast in 2014, with 5 million downloads, after it featured the story of Adnan Syed, accused of murdering his then ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee back in 1999. Produced by "This American Life" and narrated by journalist Sarah Koenig, Mr. Syed’s story garnered over 31,000 signatures and prompted a Baltimore city judge to grant a hearing, based on new evidence that was revealed in the podcast. That hearing is set to be held in February.
In February 2015, HBO aired its first episode of “The Jinx,” a documentary mini-series featuring Robert Durst, accused of the murders of two and the disappearance of his wife.
But this style of drama has its critics. The prosecutor in Avery’s case, Ken Kratz, accused the "Making of a Murderer" creators of presenting only Avery’s side of the story. “Anytime you edit 18 months' worth of information and only include the statements or pieces that support your particular conclusion, that conclusion should be reached,” Mr. Kratz said.
Both of these true-crime series present an emerging phenomenon among the public, with private citizens taking actions on social media sites to demand justice for the accused subjects.
“In this case, they've literally re-opened unsolved murder cases. Cases where lawyers couldn't pin it on the rich man. Couldn't place a high school kid in the library that fateful day. Are professional investigators ineffective? Bumbling? Somehow dumber than these journalists?” screenwriter Amanda Glassman asks.
"These investigations – ostensibly germinating as forums for reality entertainment – have inadvertently launched us into a new stratosphere, where entertainment changes things," writes Glassman in a Huffington post essay about the effects of "Serial" and "The Jinx." The result of these shows, according to Ms. Glassman: "Cases broken and reopened due to the work of private citizens, whose main objective is to educate and entertain their audiences, not necessarily to put them behind bars."