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.
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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.
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“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.
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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?”
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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.