The Netflix hit helped launch the current boom in sleuthing docuseries. Now the detective at its center is suing for defamation — and other real-life subjects are claiming emotional distress and worse as "a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists" is turning lives "upside down."
Andrew Colborn was leading a quiet life as a police officer in the Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, Sheriff's Department when his face first flashed across millions of screens around the world. It was December 2015 and the docuseries Making a Murderer had just premiered on Netflix, becoming one of its first genuine unscripted hits.
Making a Murderer helped establish Netflix as a destination for bingeable non-fiction programming, earned its makers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi four Emmys and turned tens of millions of viewers into avid armchair detectives. The docuseries also turned Colborn's life upside down, along with those of his wife, Barb, a retired pediatric nurse, and their five grown children, ages 26 to 35.
"Barb and I … have always strived to lead a quiet and private life," Colborn says. "[Making a Murderer] destroyed that for both of us and for our family. … I live in a state of constant vigilance very similar to combat or constantly being on duty as a law enforcement officer."
Colborn, 59, has not given an interview since the premiere of Making a Murderer, which examines whether Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey were framed for the 2005 murder of 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach. A second season of the show arrived in October, tracking new attorneys' efforts to secure the release of Avery and Dassey, who remain in prison, and reinvigorating discussions about the case in the press, on social media and on Reddit message boards with subjects like "Colborn Lies! Proof!" In December, Colborn filed a defamation suit against Netflix and the filmmakers, alleging that they omitted and distorted material in an effort to portray him as a corrupt officer who planted evidence to frame an innocent man.
Making a Murderer was among the first and most successful of the recent wave of true-crime programs that have mesmerized audiences, from highbrow offerings like the podcast Serial and HBO's The Jinx to guilty pleasures that fill the entire programming slate of the Oxygen network, which was rebranded as a true-crime channel in 2017 with unscripted shows like Cold Justice, License to Kill and Buried in the Backyard. For the people featured on these shows, it's not so easy to change the channel when the credits roll, as sofa-bound sleuths stay committed to solving the cases and punishing the series' anointed villains.
Colborn's is one of several recent lawsuits sparked by such shows — earlier in January, JonBenet Ramsey's family settled a defamation suit with CBS over 2016's The Case of: JonBenet Ramsey. The four-hour doc suggested that Ramsey's brother, Burke, who was 9 when his sister died, fatally hit JonBenet with a flashlight and that her parents covered up the 1996 murder (neither party would discuss the terms of settlement). There have been multiple lawsuits associated with NBCUniversal-owned Oxygen's battery of true-crime shows, including a case that an Alabama judge allowed to proceed this month over the 2017 miniseries The Disappearance of Natalee Holloway. Holloway vanished in 2005 while on a high school graduation trip to Aruba, and the six-part series includes the discovery of what supposedly were her remains. Holloway's mother, Beth, sued Oxygen and the show's producers for intentional infliction of emotional distress — she provided a DNA sample to an investigator for the testing of the bones, unaware that the sample would be part of a television series that followed her ex-husband's quest to solve Natalee's disappearance. Beth alleges that the producers knew all along the bones were from animal remains — a pig's head. (Oxygen declined to comment on ongoing litigation.)
"The folks doing these true-crime series need to adhere to the first word: true," says L. Lin Wood, the Atlanta attorney whose firm represented both the Ramseys and Beth Holloway. "If they want to suggest conclusions or make accusations, then they better damn well be sure they've got facts, not exaggerations."
Colborn, who retired from the Manitowoc County Sheriff's Department as a lieutenant in February 2018, answered THR's questions about what his life is like now by email. He says Avery sympathizers have confronted him in public, threatened to kidnap and sodomize him and gang rape his wife, and have posted pictures of his children online. Colborn has frozen his credit, after he and two other members of his family suffered identity theft. He has built a safe room in his home where family members can hide, and he and his wife no longer travel or dine out. They have collected 28 CDs worth of recorded telephone threats.
This was not the lifestyle the Colborns were envisioning when he was hired by the Manitowoc County Sheriff's Department in 1992 after 12 years in the Air Force. But Colborn's life became inextricably intertwined with Avery's when the officer picked up a phone while working at the Manitowoc County Jail in 1995. Avery's remarkable and sometimes byzantine story includes his being wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder in 1985, and serving 18 years of a 20-year sentence before being freed by DNA evidence in 2003, only to be arrested again in 2005 in connection with Halbach's murder. In 2005, months before Halbach's death, Avery sued Manitowoc County for wrongful imprisonment, and Colborn's first appearance in Making a Murderer comes in episode two as he is being interviewed for a deposition in that case. In 1995, Colborn had received a call from another law enforcement agency reporting that one of its inmates had confessed to the crime for which Avery was then in prison, but the officer did not create a written report for that phone call until eight years later, when Avery was freed by the DNA evidence. "Why does that happen?" one of Avery's attorneys asks in an interview for the Making a Murderer cameras. "That happens because these people realized they had screwed up." The narrative of much of the season hinges on whether Colborn helped Manitowoc County frame Avery for the 2005 murder in part out of humiliation over the 1985 wrongful conviction. Viewers may come away with the impression that Colborn was bumbling at best and criminal at worst.
Colborn's lawsuit alleges that the Making a Murderer filmmakers destroyed his reputation and livelihood by heavily editing his testimony in Avery's trial in order to convince viewers that he planted Halbach's Toyota RAV4 at Avery's family's salvage yard and placed its key in Avery's bedroom. The suit claims the filmmakers removed Colborn's answer to one question at trial and inserted his answer to another, giving the opposite impression; that they strategically spliced reaction shots of him appearing nervous and apprehensive; and that they omitted key photographs, including one showing a crack in a bookcase that explained why Colborn did not find the car key on his first search of Avery's home. The suit seeks damages for "loss of wages and other expenses incurred to protect his family's safety," though Wisconsin law prohibits plaintiffs from requesting a specific monetary amount.
The sense of unraveling a dense mystery is what makes true-crime shows like Making a Murderer so addictive for viewers. But the very storytelling techniques that accomplish those aims — identifying new motives and new offenders — can lead to lawsuits. "The film industry is callously using people as pawns to make a point and to garner public interest to sell their product," says Michael Griesbach, Colborn's attorney and a former prosecutor who wrote the book Indefensible: The Missing Truth About Steven Avery, Teresa Halbach, and Making a Murderer. "A cottage industry of conspiracy theorists has been spawned that has turned lives upside down. My client is the main target, but there are others, including several members of the public now widely considered murder suspects or accomplices in the framing of an innocent man. Who's falsely accusing who now?"
Though documentaries and docuseries like Making a Murderer can be held liable for the veracity of facts, just as any news outlet would be, they enjoy broad First Amendment privileges, with courts often viewing their content as protected opinion. Even evidence of a doctored interview doesn't necessarily lead to a courtroom win for a defamation plaintiff like Colborn. In 2017, a Virginia judge dismissed a $13 million lawsuit filed against the makers of the Katie Couric documentary Under the Gun, in which gun rights advocates alleged that footage was manipulated to make them appear ignorant, with an extralong pause added for effect in the editing room after one of Couric's questions. The judge found that the footage changes did "not lower these plaintiffs in the estimation of the community to the extent and with the sting required."
But the insinuations made in true-crime shows have consequences far more grave than making subjects look dumb, and the genre's boom has inevitably led to more litigation, say experts. "You're not doing shows about kittens, you're doing shows about crimes," says attorney Lincoln Bandlow, who clears A&E's investigative series Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath. "So you're going to see an uptick in defamation claims. We're fortunate that in this country we have a strong level of protection to make these kinds of shows." In the case of a police officer like Colborn, whom courts typically view as a public figure, the bar is high, Bandlow says. "Our law says certain public people have to put up with not nice things being said about them," he says. "It's going to take a pretty egregious case [for a police officer to win a defamation suit]." Even when a plaintiff does have a strong argument, these types of cases rarely make it to trial, as media companies are inclined to settle before entering the intrusive discovery phase.
In Colborn's case, Netflix and the filmmakers face some obstacles, such as Wisconsin's lack of an anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) law, a statute intended to deter frivolous litigation implicating First Amendment activity. That means the secretive streaming company, which has never disclosed the viewership for Making a Murderer, will be subject to discovery. (Though Netflix hasn't shared its own audience data, the company Symphony Advanced Media pegged Murderer viewership at an average of 19.3 million per episode in its first 35 days of release.) Netflix declined comment to THR and has until Jan. 31 to respond to Colborn's complaint in court.
However a judge or jury views Making a Murderer, most of the public who watches the show sees Colborn as one of its most memorable villains. "It was clear to me that this show was produced with an agenda to convey that Avery had been falsely accused," says Wood. "These series are about conveying information in a way that makes them entertaining and drives ratings and profits. Quote unquote true-crime series should not be accepted by the viewing public as factually accurate. They should be viewed with a jaundiced eye."
Colborn declines to disclose where he and Barb now live and says he has never watched Making a Murderer, though he has reviewed the transcripts of each episode.
Peak True Crime: A Timeline
Real-life murder has always been docu fodder, but the past five years have seen an explosion.
Premiere of the Serial podcast, investigating the 1999 murder of Hae Min Lee. It becomes the first podcast to achieve 5 million downloads on iTunes. The Maryland Court of Appeals is now reviewing whether to grant the subject of the series, Adnan Syed, a new trial.
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst premieres on HBO and gains widespread exposure when, the day before its finale airs, Durst is arrested on first-degree murder charges in connection with the 2000 death of his friend Susan Berman.
Making a Murderer, which examined whether Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey had been framed for murder, premieres on Netflix and is seen by 19.3 million viewers per episode in its first 35 days, according to Symphony Advanced Media.
CBS airs the four-hour documentary The Case of: JonBenet Ramsey, watched by an average of 9.3 million viewers a night.
The Oxygen Network announces it is rebranding itself as a true-crime-focused network and launches such shows as Cold Justice, The Disappearance of Natalee Holloway and Aaron Hernandez Uncovered.
Dirty John, a podcast and L.A. Times series about the life and exploits of con artist John Meehan, premieres. It is downloaded more than 10 million times within six weeks of release and leads to a Bravo limited series starring Eric Bana.
Making a Murderer season two premieres.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.