Nine months ago, Dean Strang’s life changed. A well-known criminal defense attorney from Madison, he had been involved in cases that attracted public attention, especially the murder trial a decade ago of Steven Avery, who was accused of murdering a freelance photographer, Teresa Halbach, in 2005 in Manitowoc County. The case attracted attention especially because it came two years after Avery was exonerated and freed after serving 18 years for a previous, unrelated murder. Strang and Jerry Buting, a Waukesha attorney, defended Avery in a trial that ended with Avery being convicted in 2007.
But nothing that happened at that time or in connection with any other case he had worked on prepared Strang for the impact on his life when a Netflix series, “Making a Murderer,” began running in December 2015 and became an international sensation. The case went into great detail in documenting the Avery case. It was widely regarded as supporting the argument that Avery was unfairly convicted.
Strang and Buting found themselves the centers of enormous attention. “It’s sort of like Jerry and I had been handed a microphone,” Strang said at an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” program at Marquette Law School on Monday. “Now, what are you going to do with the microphone?”
Strang said they decided to use the opportunity speak out to audiences across the nation and beyond about broader problems in the criminal justice system and to try to get people more involved in their own local justice issues. While many among the thousands who have listened to them wanted to talk about the Avery case, the two made broader points – and that is what Strang did during his conversation with Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy.
“I think it’s time to get more honest with the public about just how uncertain factually many of the outcomes that our criminal justice system produces are,” Strang said. Many aspects of what goes on in the criminal justice system, from the legislation that sets basic rules to the details of what goes on in a court, are contestable, he told the audience, which included many law school students.
Gousha asked Strang if class was a factor in how the Avery trial turned out. The Avery family ran a junk yard in a rural area. “Your class is inseparable from your prospects in the criminal justice system”, Strang said. “Class just matters. “
Furthermore, he said, more than 80% of criminal defendants are too poor to hire a lawyer. Although they are entitled to a lawyer, Strang was strongly critical of the realities of what that means. Full-time public defenders are generally not paid well and do not have the resources and opportunities to mount the kind of defenses better-off defendants have.
And court appointed lawyers who take individual criminal cases are paid $40 an hour in Wisconsin, Strang said. That amount has not changed since 1978 and is nowhere near enough for adequate legal representation. “When I take an indigent, I’m just doing it for free,” he said. Another defendant in the Avery case, Avery’s nephew Brandan Dassy, was represented by an appointed attorney. “You do get a sense in this film of what $40 an hour gets you,” Strang said. Dassey recently won a ruling that his confession was coerced. That could lead to him being freed, although the state is appealing the ruling.
Overall, Strang said, “We scandalously and deliberately underfund the defense side of criminal cases.”
But, he said, there are problems on the prosecution side also. “Don’t get me wrong, we don’t fund the prosecution side lavishly, we underfund that, too.” Strang said. “They just do better than the defense.”
He asked how the best lawyers were going to be recruited to be prosecutors when they get out of law school carrying enormous debt and the jobs pay about $40,000. The result is large turnover among assistant district attorneys.
“You cannot justify the ways in which we are slowly starving our criminal justice system in this country, and that includes the prosecution side,” Strang said.
Asked about his feelings toward the Halbach family, some of whom sat through the weeks of the original trial and had to witness the murder described in great detail, Strang spoke with compassion and praise for the way they handled themselves. He expanded that to his thoughts on how lawyers should act in all circumstances, including in intense courtroom settings.
“There’s nothing about being a lawyer that requires you to be less of a human being.” Strang said. “In fact, everything about a lawyer calls you to be a better human being, to be the best human being you can be.” As happened during the Avery trial, Strang said, “You get opportunities where you get to test how well you’re doing.”
The full one-hour session, including thoughts from Strang about the Avery case, may be viewed by clicking here.