SALT LAKE CITY — Wisconsin defense attorney Dean Strang, a central figure in the hit Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer,” told S.J. Quinney College of Law students Thursday that his faith in the criminal justice system is steadfast.
"I have exactly the faith and exactly the lack of confidence that I have in human beings generally, because the human being is the only player in every institution that in assemblage, make up the criminal justice system. It's all human actors," he said.
For good or for bad, human beings and the criminal justice system are inextricably connected, he said.
"To give up on the project of justice is to give up on human beings. Much as much as I love my dog, I'm not willing to give up on human beings," said Strang, who spoke on the U. campus at the invitation of law professor Shima Baradaran Baughman. The professor has developed an advanced research course for law students based on the 2015 documentary series.
"Making a Murderer" followed the cases of two men — Steven Avery and his teenage nephew Brendan Dassey — accused of the murder of photographer Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, in 2005.
Both were convicted and sentenced to life in prison, with Dassey tried as an adult. Their cases are on appeal with new legal counsel.
"I don't know that Steven Avery is innocent, but I've always had a nagging suspicion that he is," Strang said.
As for Dassey, whom Strang described as "intellectually compromised," his case "is a stain on our criminal justice system. It's abominable in my opinion."
Dassey was convicted of first-degree murder, mutilation of a corpse and second-degree sexual assault, the case built on a confession a federal magistrate later ruled had been coerced.
A panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals judges affirmed the magistrate's ruling and ordered a new trial.
The full court later reversed the panel's decision by a 4-3 vote. The majority held police had properly obtained Dassey’s confession but the dissenting judges called the reversal a “travesty of justice.”
Earlier this year, however, Dassey's legal team filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to review his case.
Strang responded to criticism that "Making a Murderer" left out evidence favorable to the prosecution or told the story of the crimes and trials from the point of view of the defense.
The filmmakers labored to interview police and prosecutors but ultimately, civil attorneys representing the county advised officers not to sign release forms, he said.
Strang said the 10-part series left out evidence and testimony favorable to both sides, which is only natural given each episode was about an hour long and the trials lasted weeks.
"You're still seeing a distillation of two trials. You’re not seeing the trials themselves," he said.
Yet, "'Making a Murderer' is such an immersive experience in that there's 3½ hours of an actual trial in this. Think about that. I can't think of any other documentary that gives that much screen time to actual courtroom proceedings and then another hour, hour and a half to Brendan Dassey's separate trial," he said.
Some of the criticism that the documentary was slanted was leveled by special prosecutor Kenneth Kratz, who at the time was Calumet County District Attorney.
"Ken Kratz doesn't seem to have any aversion to a camera but he chose repeatedly not to participate with this film project. He had his chance in many ways to say what he thought ought to be said," Strang said.
Strang did not charge a fee for his appearance at the University of Utah law school, for which Baughman said she was grateful. There are 12 students in her advanced research class based on the docu-series, but the law school's entire first-year class was invited, she said.
The documentary has wide appeal and provides many teaching moments such as evidence handling, what constitutes a zealous defense and associated social justice issues, she said.
“The thing that I thought while watching is that Avery and Dassey are all of us. I wanted to teach this class because I wanted people to know that this is not a story unique to Avery or Wisconsin. Injustice happens to many Americans every day in courtrooms all across the country. In a lot of ways the Avery and Dassey story is the story of all Americans who confront the criminal justice system — at least those without money,” Baughman said in an interview prior to Strang's visit.
Avery was found guilty of first-degree murder and illegal possession of a firearm but acquitted of a charge of mutilating a corpse. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on the murder conviction, plus five years on the weapons charge, to run concurrently. His case is on appeal.
Two decades earlier, Avery was wrongly convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder and had served 18 years in prison. DNA evidence played a key role in his exoneration.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, Avery received the maximum state compensation of $25,000. In 2004, he filed a federal lawsuit seeking $36 million from Manitowoc County. Prior to the trial in Halbach's death, Avery settled his lawsuit for $400,000.
Strang, who had been a public defender in the federal courts before returning to private practice, had not faced Kratz in court prior to the Halbach trial.
In most jurisdictions, prosecutors and defense attorneys interact collegially because they recognize each has a job to do, he said.
But interactions with Kratz "were harder than it had to be in some respects," he said.
As the trial progressed, Kratz and defense co-counsel Jerry Buting clashed to the point that they were scarcely able to say good morning to each other, Strang said.
"You can't, in fidelity to a client, let communication break down all together with the other side so that meant I had to maintain some level of collegial communication with the prosecution, which meant Ken," Strang said.
On occasion, it was aggravating, he said.
"After a point in practice, you do lose patience for fighting over the things you shouldn't be fighting over. You want to fight over the things you should be fighting over," he said.
Manitowoc County law enforcement's treatment of the Avery family provided a glimpse of the sometimes antagonistic relationship between police and people with little means or social standing, Baughman said.
"The interesting thing is that many people after watching 'Making a Murderer' wondered how this could have happened to Avery or Dassey. People commented about how awful it was that the prosecutors tainted the jury pool, that Dassey had such bad representation and that the cards were stacked in favor of the state at every part of the process," Baughman said.
Particularly baffling for Strang was the conduct of Manitowoc County officials. The Manitowoc District Attorney’s Office prosecuted Avery for sexual assault and attempted murder — for which he was eventually exonerated.
Officials publicly stated its officers would not participate in the Halbach homicide investigation to avoid the appearance of a conflict.
Instead, they were involved "up to their necks," he said.
One explanation may be that the Avery family was "as socially accused constantly by the law enforcement apparatus of that county as any family could be," Strang said.
"They simply were the 'usual suspects,' Steven in particular but not Steven alone, not the only family member. Where that antipathy came from, I don't know. It's a common thing in rural counties. It happens. I don't know if that's the explanation. But it's possible that antipathy just led to a defiance, in saying 'We said we're not going to be involved but we're going to be involved.' "