As 2015 came to a close, the internet found itself unexpectedly drawn to a calm, mild-mannered, 55-year-old defense attorney from Wisconsin. Dean Strang isn't the typical persona to garner worldwide media focus. But once you've seen Netflix's 10-part docuseries Making a Murderer, it is clear to see why he's garnered such attention.
Making a Murderer tells the story of Steven Avery, a Manitowoc County resident who was exonerated of a 1985 sexual assault conviction in 2003, only to be subsequently accused — and ultimately convicted of — murdering a different woman in 2005. Strang, alongside Jerry Buting, is one of Avery's criminal defense attorneys, and his perspective serves as the standard of morality throughout the series. While watching such a perverse use of government power unfold, Strang's observations remind the audience that the criminal justice system is a human endeavor, and by nature flawed and prone to mistakes.
Strang was a pleasant reminder that highly intelligent, passionate and truly genuine people still exist within the system. Mic spoke via telephone to the man who, despite working for more than 30 years in what he thinks is a corrupt system, manages to stay hopeful for its reform.
Mic: Throughout the documentary, I was very impressed by how you and Jerry were so well-composed during such an infuriating situation. Did the case have a deeper, emotional affect on you?
Dean Strang: For myself, the only way I can stay motivated is to take every client's case personally. To allow myself to participate in the pathos or fear or other emotions that the client feels and others in a case always feel. Now, you have to draw some boundaries between yourself and others, we all have to do that, all the time, but the key to remaining motivated and to believing the work you are doing is worthwhile is to allow yourself to invest emotionally.
How was it watching yourself in the series and seeing your work documented?
DS: Difficult. I don't enjoy watching myself on TV. Most people don't, I suspect. It's a case I lost, and that's hard to review in some respects, but I thought it also was an important film because it raises broader systemic questions well beyond the two cases that provide the concrete storyline in the film.
In the film, you talk a lot about the systemic failings in our justice system. Could you elaborate on the failings these cases demonstrated?
DS: Well, for me, these cases demonstrated the most common or nearly universal failings I perceive, at least in our criminal justice system, have haunted and hobbled the system for a very long time. And for me, some of those weaknesses that are most addressed are the demotion of value of humility on the part of judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, law enforcement officers, probations agents and others in the system in pursuing the basic work we do. We pretend with certainty when we shouldn't often, and when the related problem or the corollary problem is confronted with uncertainty, the system and the actors in it often opt for finality for its own sake. And a humility, a spirit of never being too sure that you are right, gets demoted in the hierarchy of values and finality gets promoted in the hierarchy.
To me, perverse finality often becomes the overriding value, even when the conviction's wrongful. Beyond that, outsiders learn — they can be at any given time — you can be an outsider because of your national origin or your race or your ethnicity or your socioeconomic status.
Outsiders just often don't fare well in our justice system, especially when the public is particularly excited either by fear ... or they are just excited by pervasive media coverage in a given case. The media in this country often treats trials and criminal cases as if they were blood sports.
How do you think the outcome of Avery's case impacted the system?
DS: I don't know. The system today hasn't done much to correct some obvious flaws in the process that led to the conviction of both men. I think in many ways, the systemic flaws are presented in starkest relief in Brendan Dassey's case, and so far the system hasn't distinguished itself well in its response.
How was it watching Dassey's case? I know you weren't a part of it, but it was presented throughout the documentary.
DS: I responded with real anguish and shame for the system in which I am a part.
In the third episode, what really struck me, and became a theme in the documentary, was when Steven responded about his chances in court with, "Poor people lose. Poor people always lose." Do you think this boiled down to a class issue?
DS: I think there was, in large measure, a simple truth in what Steven said, and part of what he is missing is that poor people often lose because it's almost exclusively poor people who are charged with crimes at all in this country. The vast majority, vast majority, of people accused in state and federal courts in this country, no matter where you are, are poor. They're impoverished. And usually impoverished in a number of different ways that don't necessarily fit the simplistic way in which we think of poverty.
Yes, they are impoverished in the sense that fewer than 10% of them can afford to hire a lawyer to defend them, but they are also often impoverished in education, they're impoverished in family support, impoverished in their ability to cope with drugs and alcohol use, they're impoverished in their fund to general knowledge, they have impoverished language skills often times. Steven's right: The poor lose all the time ... because it's the poor on whom the system subsists almost exclusively. The O.J. Simpsons stand out, not because their cases are that much more interesting, but because their economic and social circumstances are so unusual.
What are your thoughts on the frequent cases of police brutality towards people of color we've see in the U.S. over the past several years?
DS: This is all a piece of the same part of the problem that I am trying to describe. Institutional hubris often on the part of the police, a cultural mindset that often sees people of color or people in economically disadvantaged communities as the other — dangerous, strange, as different and as a risk. I think [it is] a system in which mistakes, including lethal mistakes by actors within the system, tend to be ratified very quickly at the expense of people outside the system and also at the expense of the very values the system professes to hold.
Are the issues brought up in Making a Murderer getting worse?
DS: I don't know that it is getting worse, but I do think it's not getting better as quickly as it could if we started asking the right questions. As someone who makes his living within the criminal justice system, I have a special duty to speak out about it and to try to speak out with some clarity. I don't have answers, but I do have ideas and other people who are smarter than I will also have ideas. We need to have a real conversation about that — not a playground brawl, not something where we are all screaming at each other accusing each other of bad things, but a real conversation that befits of democracy and in that prospects for progress emerge.
One of the things in the documentary that was very upsetting was how some of the journalists, and the media, how they sensationalized this case, and how that affected this case, and how they didn't seem to have any empathy towards the Averys.
DS: There's a sort of crassness of the one national show's reporter who tells us breathlessly that murder is hot. There's that crassness, but I think much more pervasive, and in some ways a much greater concern, is the subtlety of the language that local and national media outlets use. We are usually told about officials say this, or authorities report thus and such. ... The reality, of course, is that these are all just human beings who put on their pants one leg at a time like you and I do, who get things wrong, who get things right, who do noble things, who do ignoble things, who have biases. Some are bright; some are not so bright.
But the illusion of an impersonal institutional stability or omniscience is a much more, I think, subtle and worrisome effect that most media coverage has. In addition to the lack of empathy you are talking about, in addition to the default position of treating our adversarial justice system as if it were an adversarial sporting contest.
Is there anything you hope people will walk away with after watching the documentary?
DS: Questions. I hope they walk away with questions and the renewed resolve to have a discussion with other thoughtful people about how we try to come to better answers to those questions you see in this film. You see in Tamir Rice in Cleveland and all kinds of cases or outcomes in which we can look. But the questions that this film arises are not fundamentally questions about one county or one state or one police department or one crime. They are broader. They occur everyday across this country, in one form or another.
Whether it's police citizen encounters where an unarmed citizen ends up dead for some reason on the street, or it's inflammatory pretrial statements by prosecutors or police officers that are then echoed in the mainstream media, or whether it's legal rules being included or excluded with certain evidence ... we can look at every single institution within the collection of institutions that are supposed to administer criminal justice and see basic questions should occur to us.