Dean Strang, 'Making a Murderer' defense attorney, shares his story

Steven Avery's defense attorney Dean Strang
Steven Avery's defense attorney Dean Strang gives his closing arguments in the courtroom on Thursday, March 15, 2007, at the Calumet County Courthouse in Chilton, Wis.
Morry Gash | AP

The Netflix documentary "Making a Murderer" tells the story of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey, who were convicted of the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc, Wis.

Avery was a familiar face for area law enforcement when he was arrested for Halbach's murder. He'd previously been imprisoned for a rape it was later shown he did not commit. He served 18 years before being released. Two years later, after Halbach's remains were found on his family's property, Avery and his nephew were arrested.

The series presents the argument that law enforcement planted evidence in the Halbach case, and that the men were unfairly convicted. Since the series was released Dec. 18, several hundred thousand people have signed an online petition asking President Barack Obama to pardon Avery.

Joe Friedberg, Ron Rosenbaum, and Dean Strang
From left to right: Joe Friedberg, Ron Rosenbaum, and Dean Strang spoke at Sisyphus Brewery in Minneapolis on Jan. 27 about the Netflix phenomenon "Making a Murderer" and the role of defense attorneys in the legal system.
Manda Lillie | MPR News

The show has turned viewers into armchair sleuths: Reddit and other sites are overflowing with people sharing their personal theories on the crime. Avery's defense attorneys, Jerry Buting and Dean Strang, have become unlikely stars in the aftermath of the documentary.

Strang joined Twin Cities attorneys Joe Friedberg and Ron Rosenbaum at Sisyphus Brewery on Jan. 27 to talk about the case and it what it exposes about the legal system.

Highlights

On accusations that the documentary was sponsored or arranged by Steven Avery's defense team

Strang denied this theory, saying that filmmakers had already been involved with Steven Avery and his family for three months before Strang and his co-counsel Buting were hired.

"They'd won the trust of both our client, and his family, to a large degree, so Steven wanted us to at least consider cooperating with [the filmmakers]," Strang said. "As you might expect, Jerry and I were very, very, very leery of doing that for a bunch of reasons."

Ultimately, they agreed to let filmmakers capture portions of their defense strategy, but Strang laughed at the idea that he had helped orchestrate the documentary.

"It would have been a surpassingly strange defense strategy to say: 'Let's get some filmmakers in, and have them film us, and then maybe eight and a half years after the trial's over, the film will come out,'" he said.

On the reality of defending those accused of crimes

"If you're doing criminal defense work, your really great victories are the ones nobody ever hears about, nobody ever knows. They only real victories in this business are the clients who don't get charged at all, and nobody even knows they were under investigation," Strang said.

"Because the minute you're charged, the question is only: How much are you go to lose of your life and the things you value? Your peace of mind, your confidence in the justice system, your bank account, your relationships with family and friends, your good name. The question is how much you are going to lose from the moment you're charged."

On the documentary's larger implications

"There are two really compelling storylines in the film: Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey," Strang said. "But, in the end — and I don't mean to minimize anything about their experiences or the Halbachs's experiences or what happened in these two trials — the value of the film, I think, is in using those two storylines to pose much larger questions about how justice is administered in our names. Not just in Manitowoc County, not just in Wisconsin, but everywhere."

On the reaction to the documentary

"At its peak, a week or two ago, I was getting 150 emails a day or more from strangers," Strang said. The emails fall into two groups. The first is simple people sending words of encouragement.

The second group, which makes up a little more than half of the emails Strang has received, is "people who have a theory, a hunch. They've noticed something. They're an M.D. and they say: 'Have you thought about doing this testing?' Or: 'Hey, epigenetics has advanced and we could do more things now than we could.'"

Strang said he keeps these emails in a special inbox, which now totals more than 3,900.

Neither he nor Buting will be representing Avery going forward, he said. Avery now has a lawyer in Chicago and the assistance of an Innocence Project team based in Kansas City, Mo. Strang is passing all the emails along for them to sort out.

This leaves "Jerry and I, probably appropriately, as potential witnesses, if and when there's a further challenge to his conviction," Strang said.

For the full discussion with Dean Strang, Joe Friedberg and Ron Rosenbaum, use the audio player above.

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