Making a Case for Justice
Dean Strang ’85, Humble Hero of Popular Netflix Documentary, Advocates for Reform
by Mary Wood
In His Own Words: Q&A
The first email trickled in from a fan who, sick at home in South Carolina, binge-watched “Making a Murderer” the day the 10-part documentary became available on Netflix. Soon, Dean Strang ’85 was answering 150 heartfelt emails a day from fans who felt compelled to write after seeing the complex murder trial of Strang’s client unfold.
During a visit to the Law School on March 23, Strang said he wants to turn his accidental fame into a broader discussion on justice. He talked with students over lunch and participated in a public question-and-answer session in Caplin Auditorium.
“I cannot squander the moment while I have it,” said Strang, who has 105 speaking engagements scheduled for 2016, including a speaking tour with his friend and former co-counsel Jerry Buting.
“Making a Murderer,” which was watched by an estimated 19 million people in its first 35 days of release, focused on Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who had previously been exonerated of a sexual assault conviction, for which he spent 18 years in prison. Soon after he filed a $36 million lawsuit against Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, and several officials associated with his arrest, Avery was accused of another crime—the murder of Teresa Halbach, a photographer who visited the Avery family’s auto salvage yard the day she disappeared. Soon after receiving a $400,000 settlement from his lawsuit, Avery hired Strang and Buting, who agreed to reduce and split their typical fees when taking the case.
Filmed and edited over a decade, the series explores the intricacies of the more recent trial, which resulted in Avery’s conviction and sentence of life without parole, as well as the trial of Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, who was sentenced to life in prison, with his first chance of parole at age 59.
After starting his career as a litigator in a large civil firm and a short stint as an assistant U.S. attorney, Strang turned to criminal defense.
“I decided I love the shoes, but I have them on the wrong feet,” he said of his brief career as a prosecutor. He eventually became Wisconsin’s first federal public defender. Now a partner at his own firm, StrangBradley, he also teaches as an adjunct at the University of Wisconsin and its law school, and at Marquette University Law School. In December, just weeks before the film became available, Strang learned Netflix would air it. He recalled a conference call with publicity and marketing representatives that warned the lawyers, “You may get some media calls.”
“They clearly had no idea what the appetite might be for that particular docu-series,” he said.
Strang, who has been celebrated by fans for his sincere demeanor, said it’s important to be “emotionally open” to the pain and fear clients and victims feel, as well as to what drives law enforcement. Without emotions, he said, you’re just a technician.
“Technicians don’t connect with judges, they don’t connect with juries, and they don’t connect with clients,” he said. “Unless you connect with a client, you’re not really able to walk this journey with a client, and that’s a large part of what a client needs.” Asked about obstacles to justice in Wisconsin, Strang pointed to problems that also affect other parts of the country: elected judges, the indigent and racial minorities facing more police contact and being disproportionately jailed, and poor compensation for court-appointed lawyers.
Strang said the criminal justice system might improve if an internal review was triggered in police departments and prosecutors’ offices after certain critical incidents, such as acquittals or exonerations— much as some hospitals review what goes wrong after a bad outcome.
“Once you’re charged in this country, you’ve lost,” he said, “You’ve lost your reputation, you’ve lost a bunch of money—if you ever had money—you’ve lost your peace of mind, you’ve lost fair-weather friends, you lose family. So acquittals are not a good thing, they’re only a less-bad thing than a wrongful conviction.”
Strang, who attended UVA Law after graduating from Dartmouth with a degree in government, fondly recalled his time at the Law School, including serving as a research assistant to Professor David Martin. He recounted being chased off farms while volunteering with the Migrant Farmworker Project and, at a time when nerves gave him “cotton mouth” when speaking publicly, washing out of the first round of the William Minor Lile Moot Court Competition.
Strang, the author of “Worse than the Devil: Anarchists, Clarence Darrow, and Justice in a Time of Terror,” is working on a second book, about a 1918 federal trial targeting the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical labor union whose members were convicted of obstructing World War I under the Espionage Act. The book will be published in 2018, in time for the trial’s 100-year anniversary.
In His Own Words
Q: You’re in this unusual moment of extreme and sudden fame right now—how are you handling it? What is your life like?
A: The temporary but silly edges of this have been distracting and even disorienting. My time on the road has increased dramatically, largely by my own choice in that it relates to the parts of this that are really very good and not disorienting—which is a wealth of opportunity to speak to audiences that matter to me, like universities, law schools, bar groups and to some extent the general public—about criminal justice issues. I’d say the transient Internet stuff and social media stuff—well, I’m aware of some of it, and that’ll pass, and I think at that point I’ll probably feel much less distracted. But then there will still be a lot of time on the road and changing the balance between travel and the office for the next several months.
Q: You’re about to embark on a speaking tour with Jerry Buting, your co-counsel in the Steven Avery case. Why did you think it was important to speak out? Can you give us a brief preview of what you’ll be talking about?
A: The moderators will be local to each city and audience members are invited to submit questions in advance. To some extent, what we talk about will be driven by the audience’s questions, but the broader subjects are issues of criminal justice that “Making a Murderer” raises or frames pretty well and that are of interest anywhere in this country because they are not tied to any two specific cases or to one county or one state. We’re trying to address some of the larger issues of the administration of criminal justice through the interest in these two particular cases.
Q: Could you describe your path to becoming a criminal defense lawyer?
A: It was an accidental path. When I arrived at UVA Law School I had every intention of never setting foot in a courtroom, certainly not doing criminal work. So I avoided trial advocacy courses or anything related to criminal law, other than what I was required to take. I graduated from law school without ever reading Miranda. Then I ended up in litigation at a large civil firm in Milwaukee by accident. I had gone there to do employee benefits work, but they didn’t need someone in employee benefits at that moment at my level, and they put me in litigation. I was not very happy about that initially, but very quickly I came to like the litigators and I came to like the writing opportunities in litigation, and just the pace of life in litigation. I also, by accident, became acquainted with a large group of really promising young public defenders and that became my social circle. When I went back to Milwaukee after law school, I had been absent from my hometown for seven years, and through this acquaintance with this really energetic, bright group of public defenders, I got interested in criminal work. So after a brief and nearly disastrous stint at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Milwaukee, I landed with one of the best criminal defense law firms that Wisconsin has ever produced, [Shellow, Shellow & Glynn], and that was almost 28 years ago.
I’ve moved since then—I was there eight-and-a-half years and I’ve been with a number of firms, and I was the first federal defender in Wisconsin for five years—but it’s been almost 28 years that I’ve been doing criminal defense.
Q: What do you like best about your job?
A: I like two things. The opportunity to write, to brief issues and think creatively about how things ought to work better in the system and in a particular case. So I really like the motion and briefing practice for one. And for two, I enjoy the very human quality of it. Even in the comparatively rare instance where you’re representing a corporation in a criminal investigation, you’re really representing people. There’s always one or two or more people at the corporation who feel personally at risk or who feel personally targeted by a criminal investigation. It’s inescapably human work and you are representing a human being in distress. You really are close to the best and worst things that human beings do and the hardest things in life that human beings encounter, whether they’re defendants or victims.
Q: When you first saw the Avery story put together on film, did you feel that is was a good representation of the case and the issues at stake?
A: Yes. It was not the only representation of the case that they might have made, but I thought the editorial decisions were reasonable and solid, given the huge mass of material. I thought the filmmakers distilled this down to the essential points that both sides were making and also did a great job of framing in the context of the facts of a specific case broader questions of criminal justice, as they say—for example, the experience of juveniles being moved into adult court; the experience of people with learning disabilities or developmental delays within the criminal justice system; the role of class in the criminal justice system; police biases and the ordinary biases that we all carry around and how those can deflect the course of a criminal investigation or somebody’s experience in the justice system; pretrial publicity and how it can distort the efficacy of the process and the system’s ability to deliver on the values that it purports to hold—and you can go on. I just thought that they did a very good job of framing for people these broader issues in the context of two very compelling, specific story lines.
Q: Did certain aspects of the case strike you differently when you saw it on film than when you were living it, and were there any surprises?
A: No. For example, in the Avery trial, the one in which I represented my client, I think of the 10 hours of this film, a little over three are devoted to that trial and of course the trial went six or seven weeks, so I didn’t expect to see in three hours everything that happened in six or seven weeks. To me it really did fairly present the texture and overall topography of the case. What was new to me was the Dassey trial, because I didn’t watch the Dassey trial, I wasn’t a part of it. That started two or three weeks after the Avery trial ended and I unplugged from these cases at the time. So that was new to me—the footage from that trial and the footage from the Michael O’Kelly defense interview of Brendan Dassey.
Q: What was your reaction to that part of the show?
A: I was struck by the failings of the system that were on display there, that for me, in any case, would undermine greatly my confidence in the reliability of the outcome.
Q: What legal options remain for Steven Avery?
A: I think they fall under the broad heading of newly discovered evidence, eventually a motion for a new trial based on newly discovered evidence. Brendan Dassey, on the other hand, is still in federal court on a federal habeas action. [Dassey is awaiting a judge’s decision on whether he will get a hearing based on an appeal he filed in October.]
Q: How does what happened during the Avery investigation and trial reflect on the criminal justice system more broadly?
A: To me, the film is a clarion call for more humility by all of the actors and institutions in the criminal justice system. Lawyers, judges, police officers—I think all of us could use a real dose of humility, less certainty of the correctness of our conclusions and our outcomes, less effort at self-justification, less effort at self-aggrandizement and just overall less defensiveness—to put it in one word, “humility.”
Q: You once considered being an editorial cartoonist. Do you still draw?
A: I didn’t just consider being an editorial cartoonist, that’s all I wanted to do, from age 8 to age 21. I very rarely draw now for the same reasons that recovering alcoholics very rarely drink or they try not to drink, because if I were to start drawing again, very often at least, I’d lose myself and eight hours would go by and all I would have done is a cartoon. So it’s just not something I can dabble in.
Q: How did your experience at UVA help prepare you for your career?
A: I liked law school. I really enjoyed it. I found it intellectually engaging, and I found it a good place to be. I met really good people. I thought that the competition was healthy and not unhealthy. The law school at Virginia was just an interesting place to be, with a lot of bright students around me and faculty members whom I admire to this day and to whom I really think I owe a great debt I’ll never be able to repay. That’s part of what drives me to teach: I’m hoping to at least do for younger people and others some of what was done for me by a lot of the professors I had at UVA.
Q: Do you have any advice for students interested in pursuing a career in criminal defense or criminal law?
A: Don’t overlook the academic richness that’s available in all of your courses, if you’re open to that, because I think the best lawyers, the most interesting and the most interested lawyers I know, are those who are well enough grounded in other aspects of law to recognize the unity inAmerican law—unity in the sense of the recurrence of the basic themes or principles of American law in all of its specialties. So that’s not to say you shouldn’t take clinical courses and that’s not to say you shouldn’t take trial advocacy or you shouldn’t take all of the criminal courses you can. It is to say that you shouldn’t devalue the rest of the curriculum, and especially you shouldn’t devalue opportunities to write creatively.