A STAR IS BORN
How ‘Making a Murderer’ Defense Attorney Dean Strang Is Making America Great Again
Steven Avery’s big-hearted lawyer opens up about his ex-client’s latest appeal, his heartthrob status, and the myriad flaws in our criminal justice system.
The epic, stirring monologues. Those wire frame glasses. The crusader’s heart beating underneath that cable-knit sweater—worn over dad jeans—bleeding in the name of justice for convicted murderer Steven Avery.
He may or may not have a hand in the continuing legal saga of Wisconsin man Avery, who Tuesday filed a new appeal fighting his conviction in the troubling murder trial chronicled in Netflix’s hit docuseries Making a Murderer. (“I don’t want to comment on anything present or future,” he said of Avery’s new filing, which blamed jury and defense counsel issues from his 2007 trial and subsequent appeals.)
But if there’s one man with the power to make America great again in 2016, it’s Dean Strang—the mild-mannered Madison, Wisconsin, lawyer with a knack for elocution whose passion and empathy have made the country care about attorneys en masse for the first time in a long, long while.
Today, Making a Murderer’s unlikely star is a working defense attorney who’s also taught and written about law. He wrote a book on Clarence Darrow, a 1917 Milwaukee anarchist bombing, and the media-obsessed trial that resulted. Strang now spends his days leading his own firm, StrangBradley, out of Madison. Although he could easily parlay his newfound fan base into something big, Strang insists during a recent phone conversation that he’s not at all interested in pursuing politics.
“I’m not running for office!” he exclaimed, which in itself suggested it’s not the first time anyone’s asked.
Strang and his co-counsel Jerry Buting skyrocketed to fame after the Dec. 18 release of Making a Murderer, emerging as the two noblest figures of the 10-part series filled with murder suspects, questionable evidence, inept attorneys, suspicious lawmen, a creepy DA, grieving families, and unsympathetic judges.
During Avery’s trial they adopted a good cop/bad cop routine—ironic, given that their chief defense theory was that local law enforcement framed Avery for the 2005 murder and mutilation of photographer Teresa Halbach, whose vehicle and burned bones were discovered on his family property.
The Strang/Buting dynamic—one gentle and affecting, the other a master of the cross-exam mic drop—made the middle-aged, bespectacled lawyers instant icons. Their shared underdog idealism for what many perceive to be a broken legal system was infectious and downright awe-inspiring, more so in the aftermath of Avery’s conviction.
Strang remembered the toll the six-week trial took on him. It was so taxing, he had to immediately “unplug” from the world—so much so that he never caught the subsequent trial of Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, until he binge-watched Making a Murderer himself.
“I’d been there, and I’d lost the case,” he recalled, a note of sadness in his voice. “People have been asking me, ‘Is it cool to watch yourself on [Making a Murderer]?’ And I say, ‘No! Actually, it’s not cool to watch yourself.’ Especially, you know, on something that was a difficult experience and I lost in the end. It was a significant professional failure.
“Imagine you’re on your second marriage,” he laughed softly. “The first one didn’t work out. You moved on, you met someone else, you remarried, now you’re happy. How much time would you spend watching the video from your first wedding? Well, it’s not a perfect analogy.”
Strang has been hitting the press trail this month for Avery while acknowledging that his former client may by necessity need to call into question the defense he and Buting mounted, as Avery pursues a new appeal and/or trial in light of new revelations and old suspects the authorities never seriously pursued. Buting, meanwhile, has been overseas as the docuseries and Avery case has blown up and become a national obsession.
For both men, the love they’re getting from Making a Murderer fans is a 180 from the criticisms and hate mail they received just for representing Avery two decades ago.
“You’re either a defense lawyer or you’re not,” Strang told a reporter in 2007, peeling back the curtain on the pressures of defending a client like Avery. “If you’re a defense lawyer, you’re somebody who instinctively and as a matter or principle and real belief says, ‘I’m on the side of the guy everybody’s after. I’m on the side of the guy who’s on the outs. I’m on the side of the guy people hate. I’m just on his side as a matter of instinct.’”
“I hope we’re not ultimately going to be hated,” Buting said in the same article, years before Making a Murderer would make heroes out of the legal eagles. “But I hope people are going to see another side of this case no matter what happens.”
“Mostly it has felt flattering, but I wouldn’t say vindicating or even validating,” Strang said, reflecting on the newfound support for Avery’s case. “It’s been flattering, because in 2006 and 2007 during the trial almost all the emails or calls or letters we were getting were nasty or unpleasant, and now this is the flip side of that. The vast majority of what I’ve been getting has been quite flattering and kind and thoughtful.”
As binge-watchers devoured the addictive series, many viewers also developed a major crush on Strang, whose sensitive articulation of frustration in the face of injustice drew comparisons to everyone from Atticus Finch to Stephen Colbert to Kyle Chandler.
Strang all but blushes through the phone when I mention his legions of Internet devotees. He stays off social media but gets the memes and articles when friends teasingly email them over. Making a Murderer fans are so obsessed with the series that he’s gotten several inquiries from Irish reporters about a hurling statue seen in some of his on-camera interviews, sitting curiously in his office.
Well, mystery solved: “The answer to that is that there’s a wonderful criminal defense lawyer in Milwaukee who’s long been a friend of mine for over 31 years now, and he gave me that as a present at some point,” Strang said. “I’ve never seen a hurling match, or what would you call them? I’ve never played hurling… I’ve never been to Ireland!”
When I filled him in on the StrangCore Tumblr dedicated to his strikingly ’90s fashion looks, as seen on Making a Murderer—relaxing on a couch barefoot in denim, for example—he let rip a burst of uproarious laughter. “Some people need more to do,” was his bemused reply. “Mostly whatever it is, I’m just letting it go over my head.”
His wife of nearly three years, however, “thinks it’s very funny! Other than when she’s like, ‘These women should not mess with me,’” he laughed. “Which is true! You do not want to mess with her.”
The attention that Making a Murderer brought into Strang’s world has sparked both fan club fawning and a chance for the still-dedicated attorney to discuss the issues that trouble him, both in the Avery and Dassey cases and in the current state of the American judicial system: poverty, class, the press, and the role socioeconomic inequality plays in the legal prospects of the accused.
“It’s not every case that raises all of those issues or even some of them, but it’s many cases that raise one or more,” said Strang. “And some of them are just perennial and unavoidable points of conflict in the values we hold. For example, you want an unrestrained, free, lively press and media coverage in this country. I don’t want any government restraints functionally on reporting and journalism. At the same time, we want a fair trial for everyone who’s accused. And those things can collide. Those important values can collide with one another and then it becomes very hard to strike a balance.”
As filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi point out in Making a Murderer, a frenzied media can spin the court of public opinion out of control, tainting a jury pool. Strang is unafraid to play devil’s advocate, referencing what is certain to become one of the biggest celebrity criminal cases of all-time.
“How is Bill Cosby going to be presumed innocent months from now when he goes to trial in Pennsylvania?” asked Strang. “What juror who’s got functioning adult intelligence will you find who doesn’t have some opinion on whether Bill Cosby is guilty or innocent before he or she hears the first witness testify? That doesn’t mean we mute the press. But it does mean we’re left with the problem of, how do we assure that Bill Cosby gets a fair trial like anyone else is entitled to have?”
He hopes Making a Murderer fans channel their fascination and outrage over the Avery case into asking crucial questions about the criminal justice system.
“Why are so many teenagers treated as adults in the criminal justice system? Why do we impose sentences of life without the possibility of parole?” he asked. “That’s just a slow death sentence. Why do we do that, especially in a case where there really are serious questions about guilt, for both of these guys?
“Why do we have a criminal justice system in which north of 90 percent of people charged with a crime anywhere in this country have not enough money to hire a lawyer to defend them, let alone mount the rest of the defense?” he continued, his voice rising. “Why is that? What role does class play in our criminal justice system, both in the prospects of being charged and in the prospects of an outcome?
“Once you’re talking about class, how do you separate that entirely in an American society from race or ethnicity, or recent arrivals as an immigrant? That’s what gets you closely linked to disproportionally being a member of the socioeconomic underclass in this country,” he said.
“This little story out of Manitowoc County raises all of those issues and more. Is it tolerable, in a system that values a fair trial and a presumption of innocence, to allow prosecutors to give lurid pre-trial detailed news conferences that are so graphic and vivid that he’s telling children to leave the room and not watch the television? There are any number of questions journalists can talk about and that honestly, people ought to be talking about across dinner tables.”
Strang says he was “disappointed” by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s recent declaration that he would not grant Avery a pardon, nor watch Making a Murderer. (Strang represented an unidentified client who was “a political ally of Governor Walker” in an unrelated case, arguing against John Doe statutes granting prosecutors extraordinary powers to secret investigations in the state.)
“I have real regrets that this governor announced very early in or even right before his first term that there would not be executive clemency while he was the governor,” lamented Strang. “He’s not alone. American governors mostly have shrunk [away] from using that power, and away from using the dignity of their office in that way to help people who have rehabilitated themselves, or who deserve an act of mercy as a part of justice.
“It’s unfortunate, because clemency, for time immemorial, is an executive prerogative and only an executive prerogative. Courts don’t sit to administer clemency. Courts don’t sit to introduce a role for justice in the years after a conviction—executives do. And it’s unfortunate to see them dodge the dignity of their office in that respect,” he continued, theorizing that gubernatorial ambition to the White House is to blame for the trend.
“Acts of decency, acts of mercy, acts of sovereign grace… a governor is the highest representative individually of state government, and government without grace, government without mercy, is a pretty harsh overlord.”
Strang’s legacy might have been much different had he followed his original career path: “I wanted to be an editorial cartoonist!” he revealed, laughing softly. “When I went to law school I figured I’d never set foot in a courtroom, civil or criminal.” Or become this generation’s Atticus Finch.