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Q&A: Attorney Dean Strang still haunted by aspects of the Steven Avery case
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Q&A: Attorney Dean Strang still haunted by aspects of the Steven Avery case

Netflix has done it again. The DVD rental and streaming video service has produced another highly bingeable offering in “Making a Murderer,” a 10-part series about the Steven Avery, who was convicted in 2007 for murdering Teresa Halbach. Because the series is set in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, many of us remember the case and know some of the players.

Madison attorney Dean Strang, along with Jerome Buting, defended Avery and a significant portion of the series features him discussing his thoughts about the case in real time, questioning witnesses, addressing reporters and even ruminating while he drives.

Strang, 55, is a Milwaukee native who has worked as an attorney since 1985, in Madison for the last ten years. He’s a partner at Strang Bradley, LLC and also teaches courses through the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies. In 2013, he published “Worse than the Devil: Anarchists, Clarence Darrow and Justice in a Time of Terror,” a book about a 1917 conspiracy trial in Milwaukee.

Strang spoke with the Cap Times last week about the Netflix series and the Avery case.

Have you watched the series yet?

I finished it last night, way too late.

So you didn’t get a shot at it before anybody else did?

I could have asked for that and they would have let me do that, but I didn’t.

Do you feel it was an accurate depiction of the events surrounding the trial?

I thought first, it was really, really good filmmaking. And second, to take a seven week trial and with a 15 month run-up to that and all the years since, to condense it to 10 hours — yes, I thought it was fair. It can’t be complete, but I thought it was fair.

What caused you to say yes to this project?

It was an individual decision with a big huge client component. Steven wanted us to cooperate and gave his approval, not for disclosure of his confidences — nobody asked to invade the attorney-client privilege. When I met the filmmakers, I didn’t know what point of view they were going to start with, or end with for that matter. I didn’t know what the content would be, but I had a really high degree of confidence in their integrity and their intelligence.

Laura Ricciardi, one of the two filmmakers, was a lawyer by training before she went back and got a Ph.D. in film. So I really had a high degree of confidence that there was native intelligence there, there was integrity there and an ability to understand the legal context. So I was comfortable cooperating with them.

There’s no shortage of documentaries and TV shows on murder cases, but they rarely look at how attorneys work far outside the courtroom like they did with this series. You’re seen hiking around the Avery salvage yard, for example. Is that standard operating procedure?

Oh sure. You’ve got to go to the scene in every case. Even if it’s a white collar fraud allegation or something, you try to go to the client’s milieu or wherever the key event supposedly happened. And the filmmakers’ willingness to do that is why I cooperated with them and why I don’t cooperate with the ilk you see an emblematic symbol of in the series with the young woman from "Dateline" or "20/20" or wherever who tells us, “Murder’s hot right now!” That’s the much more common approach; it’s a one-off, a quick-hit, driven-by-viewership paradigm or some sort of simple theme and I try to avoid that as much as I possibly can.

There’s a parallel between this series and the Serial podcast in that viewers can see interrogations and consider evidence outside the constraints of a courtroom trial and then second-guess attorneys on social media. Is that something you think about or pay attention to?

Yes, I think about it as an interested observer and as one who is wary of how social media intersect with my work. But you can’t try to control it and you also can’t take it too much to heart. For example, during the Avery trial — the run-up and the seven weeks of the trial — we got all kinds of hate mail, threats. If you read the comments posted on newspaper websites, it was all vitriol, overwhelmingly directed at us, our client and his family.

Now, for the last six days, it’s been exactly the opposite, sort of an onslaught of encomiums, warm wishes. A lot of it is literate and thoughtful and all that, but both of those experiences are artificial and distorting. Neither of them represent any particular reality other than what’s going on in fevered social media at the moment among a self selected portion of the population. You really can’t set your bearings to that at any time. You do have to be wary of how it will affect what I’m trying to do when I’m trying a case.

In one of the episodes, you talk about how if you think too much about the problems that occur with the defense of Brendan Dassey (Avery’s nephew who was also convicted of murder in the case) it will both hurt your work in defending Avery and become quite troubling. Are you still thinking about that aspect of the case?

Yes. The longer I’m in this work — and maybe anyone who thinks about his or her work, whatever it is — the less I tend to focus on the specific outcomes in any given case or any given motion hearing or whatever because the reality is that those often are flukey or accidental in the way that all human enterprise is.

The longer I’m in it, the more I tend to think about or at least focus on and worry about broader systemic failings or weaknesses and Brendan Dassey’s case was just a vivid example, I think, of some systemic failings and faultlines that haunts me and provides a lot to think about.

Steven’s case, almost any case, reveals some systemic weaknesses or things we should try to improve, not just in one case but across the workings of the justice system. For me at least, those flaws were revealed in sharper relief and more vividly in Brendan’s case.

Is there any chance the Avery case could be revisited?

I think the realistic chances for Steven are slim but not vanished or nonexistent and I think they lie under the heading of new evidence, which would either be someone coming forward, someone admitting something, someone revealing a secret they’ve been carrying that would point in another direction or an advance in scientific testing so that the blood and the EDTA (discovered in Halbach’s car) can be revisited.

Have you had any recent contact with Steven Avery?

Oh yes. I’ve always had contact with him, as has Jerry. We saw him last week.

So you visit him in prison?

Not all that frequently, but I’ve probably seen him four times in prison since he was sentenced, I’ve seen him in court post conviction. We correspond. Jerry and I both sort of remain pro bono resources to him.

When he’s speaking in the documentary, Avery answers very serious questions about his innocence in such a direct, matter of fact way. Does he remain that way?

Yes. That is Steven Avery. There is no other Steven Avery than what you’re seeing. He’s a very concrete thinker, he has an economy for words, he processes slowly and that’s him.

Is there anything else that strikes you as interesting, having just finished watching the series?

As someone who knows nothing about filmmaking, it was interesting to me to watch a documentary that had no narration. The footage and the clips and interviews carry the entire narrative. It’s probably not unique, but I had not seen a documentary where the subjects of it and the collected footage just carry the narrative entirely.

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Jason Joyce has lived in Madison for over 30 years, starting as a student at UW-Madison. After working at Isthmus for 15 years, where he oversaw digital operations and wrote a sports column, he took over as news editor at The Capital Times in 2013.

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