Righting wrongs

“Making a Murderer” lawyer says humility is needed to change a flawed legal system

Dean Strang opens up about defending Steven Avery, who was convicted for murdering 25-year-old Wisconsin woman Teresa Halbach

Making a Murderer, Netflix’s roiling true crime series, does not make for particularly joyful viewing. The documentary delves into the fractured American legal system as reflected through the prism of Steven Avery, a Manitowoc, Wisconsin man, who may have been convicted of two crimes he did not commit. Amidst the creepy prosecutors and shady cops who appear in the series, a defense attorney named Dean Strang emerges as a quiet-but-determined purveyor of justice. At Tina Brown Live Media’s American Justice Summit on Friday, Strang spoke to Tina Brown about the case that has transformed him into a household name.

Strang was one half of the legal team that represented Avery, who served 18 years in prison for a sexual assault that DNA evidence ultimately proved he did not commit. Soon after Avery brought a $35 million lawsuit against the Manitowoc County sheriff’s department, he was arrested for the murder of Teresa Halbach, a 25 year-old-photographer who was last seen on Avery’s property. In court, Strang and his colleague Jerry Buting presented unsettling indications that Avery had been framed by law enforcement.

In Making a Murderer, Strang comes across an admirable Atticus Finch-type: well-spoken, empathetic, principled. He makes for an unlikely heartthrob, but the Internet has fallen in love. (For an apt representation of Strang-mania, look no further than the Twitter user who referred to the attorney as “legal beefcake”).  Snippets of the crusading spirit that has captured the nation’s heart peeked through during Strang’s interview at the Summit. He told Brown he decided to take on Avery’s case precisely because he knew it would be a difficult one. “He was easily the most high-profile, detested person in Wisconsin after he was arrested for murder,” Strang said. He also noted that after Avery was exonerated in 2003, he was held up by politicians as an example of the need for justice reform in this country. Public opinion turned quickly, and viciously, once Avery was arrested for Halbach’s murder. “The fall from grace was very dramatic for Steven,” Strang continued. “I think both Jerry and I saw it as a hard case… but also one that had the compelling elements that you see in the documentary on Netflix.”

Dean Strang, lawyer and former trial lawyer for Steven Avery is interviewed by Tina Brown at the Tina Brown Live Media American Justice Summit, in New York City on January 29, 2016.

Dean Strang, lawyer and former trial lawyer for Steven Avery is interviewed by Tina Brown at the Tina Brown Live Media American Justice Summit, in New York City on January 29, 2016.

Implications of police corruption and malfeasance are arguably what make the documentary so very riveting. In and out of court, Strang and Buting detail possible instances of evidence tampering, including a rather dramatic incident involving a vial of Avery’s blood. “How often do you encounter suspicious evidence?” Brown asked Strang on stage.

“Not that often,” he replied. “I think if you look a little bit more broadly about the ways in which police officers can succumb to temptation to augment a case dishonestly—[like] exaggerated testimony under oath [and] deceptive police reports — that’s a much more common phenomenon.”

For the most part, Strang noted, this sort of evidence fudging stems not from nefarious intentions, but from a desire to see the right person convicted of a crime. “It is really unusual, and an abandoned act of evil, when a police officer sets out to frame someone who he knows to be innocent,” Strang said.

Whether or not Avery was subjected to such police malfeasance has been the subject of much debate since Making a Murderer was released. The most unequivocal tragedy of the documentary may hinge upon Brendan Dassey, Avery’s nephew. Six weeks into Avery’s trial, Dassey confessed to helping his uncle rape and murder Halbach. Dassey was 16 years old at the time, and learning disabled. Footage of his interrogation indicates that he was highly malleable to police suggestion, and incapable of understanding the severity of his situation (after admitting to the murder, he asks investigators if he will be able to return to class in time to submit a project).

“The people who are drawn in to the criminal justice system are often impoverished [not only financially but also] intellectually, in terms of their general knowledge,” Strang said on stage. “Learning disabilities are very common both in juvenile justice and the adult justice system. The journey that people see Brendan undergoing through Wisconsin’s criminal justice system is indeed not uncommon.”

“It’s also heartbreaking to see how inadequate [Brendan’s] lawyer is,” Brown noted, referring to Len Kachinsky, a court-appointed attorney who not only allowed his client to be questioned without council present, but also hired a detective to solicit an additional confession from the teenager.

“Wisconsin is near the bottom in its compensation for court-appointed council,” Strang said. “Forty dollars an hour, and it hasn’t gone up since 1994. This is a pervasive problem in US justice: the under-compensation or under-funding of the defense of the indigent.”

But the ills of America’s justice system are not only rooted in finances. Among police officers and lawyers, there is tremendous pressure to win cases, to be right, and to stay right. This culture of finality, of intractability may very well make it difficult for men like Avery and Dassey to see questionable convictions overturned.

“Finality really is a problem,” Strang said. “It enjoys near primacy as a value in our system and needs to be demoted in the hierarchy of values. There’s no question, I think, that police and prosecutors get invested in the outcome [of a case]. They don’t want to get it wrong. They don’t want to lock up the wrong person. So there becomes this tremendous need to believe you got it right.”

“How do we change that culture?” Brown asked.

“I think it starts with humility,” Strang replied. “Recognizing that every one of these institutions that together compose the criminal justice system is itself made up of human beings, all of us flawed, all of use broken … I think we need to have the humility to recognize that and correct serious mistakes.”


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