Make Dean Strang proud: If you really care about criminal justice reform, stop trying to get out of jury duty

Salon talks to "Making a Murderer"’s Dean Strang and Jerry Buting about fame, justice and why judicial races matter

Published April 14, 2016 6:21PM (EDT)

Jerome Buting and Dean Strang   (AP/Benny Sieu)
Jerome Buting and Dean Strang (AP/Benny Sieu)

It is arguable that not since Atticus Finch have any defense attorneys been as adored by the American public as Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, the Wisconsin-based lawyers who defended Steven Avery in the the murder case explored in the Netflix hit Making a Murderer. As the 10-episode documentary series became a viral phenomenon earlier this year, Strang and Buting rose to fame as “the good guys” in a fight against injustice and corruption on behalf of the underdog. This depiction, along with their general, unassuming likeability, made unlikely pop stars of the two attorneys and resulted in an national fanbase and even Tiger Beat-style love memes and think pieces about their heartthrob appeal.

Despite ongoing speculation and widely varying opinions over the Steven Avery case (which resulted in a guilty verdict in 2007 and is currently in appeals with Chicago-area attorney Kathleen Zelner representing Avery), Buting and Strang have remained trusted figures in the Internet hivemind. Now, they are turning that popularity into a platform to create greater dialog about the criminal justice system and the implications of the Steven Avery case in a nationwide speaking tour dubbed, “A Conversation on Justice.”

In a promotional trailer for the tour Buting said, “In essence, this is sort of like a ‘director’s cut’ of what experiences we had and what lessons we’ve learned from that case and other cases in our careers.” Each appearance will include discussion between the attorneys and a Q&A session where audience members can address them personally. A generous portion of their speakers’ fees will be donated to legal justice charities.

Salon caught up with Strang and Buting en route to Philadelphia for their last speaking engagement in a string of preview shows before “A Conversation of Justice” kicks off in Boston on April 16.

Among other things, the popularity of "Making a Murderer" shows how powerful television and social media can be in creating awareness of major issues in our country. At what point did you realize that this was an opportunity to keep the conversation going?

Dean Strang: Sometime in January we started getting contacts from booking agents, talent agents, literary agents, and all kinds of people in those fields who were telling us, "Look, there would be an interest in this and it won't last forever." It took some persuading. It seemed unlikely to us, but we'll see how deep and wide that interest runs.

Jerry Buting: Also, various groups had contacted us, individually or together. "Will you talk to this group of lawyers or this minor league baseball team?" All walks of life. The tour idea came out of how the media was interviewing us [about the show]. It was the same thing as before the trial where they would interview us and 2-3 minutes would end up on the news. You can't discuss these kinds of issues in that sort of time, so we thought it would be great to have a forum where we can engage people. That was the idea that these shows and events we are doing grew out of.

Strang: The mainstream media really, regardless of what you thought you were going to get with an interview, turned out to be two and a half to three minutes of "Do you think he's guilty?" and "What do you think of people drawing Valentine's hearts on pictures of you?"

That must have been unexpected. Lawyers obviously have public roles in their community, but not this sort of celebrity, mainstream kind of fandom. Has it been hard to step into that role and be so visible in the public?

Strang: We're used to public speaking and that kind of thing. Speaking for myself, what's been hard is to figure out what's sort of the current riverbed for spoken word audiences. We're not comedians. I understand standup comedy and that audience and we're not part of that. Beyond that, there are some interesting things going on with spoken word audiences in the country. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is drawing thousands of people everywhere he goes. Or Bill Nye. David Sedaris who comes out with a music stand and marks up his draft as he's reading it to you and he draws packed houses. We don't fit any of those categories, but my sense is that for the appetite to listen to a physicist speak at an auditorium is in some way connected to an appetite to listen to two lawyers of no particular notoriety before three months ago talk about criminal justice. So I think it's finding an appetite for the audience, and talking about the film on one hand, and larger systemic issues on the other, and how to mix in humor on a very unfunny topic on a real-life murder case. That's been the challenge, not so much the public speaking part, on my end.

Buting: Another thing I've noticed is that people are interested in us as criminal defense lawyers. Us as heartthrobs, too, of course, but "What's it like and how do you do it in a system that seems corrupt and unfair?" "How do you pick yourself up and keep doing it?" There's been a lot of interest from young people in particular, who are really inspired by the idea of being criminal defense attorneys. It's a different role model than what you see portrayed on TV. At first all of this celebrity status was kind of embarrassing to me, like, "You've got to be kidding!" On the other hand, when people are that interested, and I think about how we can inspire young people to get involved, then it's ok to give up a little of the privacy that we have.

It seems like such a great opportunity. There was a petition to ask Obama to give Steven Avery a pardon that went viral. You start to realize how many people don't quite understand how everything works. Are you dealing with basic criminal justice questions on this tour and educating people, or getting more to your point, how do you make criminal justice law something that is consumable to the average audience?

Buting: It's a combination. The 400,000-500,000 people who signed the petition to Obama, their hearts were in the right spot. They wanted to do something. They didn't like what they saw about our justice system in the documentary, but they just didn't understand that the President doesn't have the right to pardon people for state crimes. So yes, we try to educate people about what they can do, and also motivate them and inspire them, and try to direct them a little bit into more productive tasks that they can do in their own communities.

What are some of the things you're advising people to do in their own communities, off the Internet?

Strang: A number of suggestions we've made are, whatever your interests are within the broad field of justice, there are advocacy groups and charities for you. If it's racial disparity that drives you, there are lots of groups that address that. If it's victims’ rights, there are groups for that. If it's mandatory minimum sentences, the death penalty, and on and on. And we're also making a very concerted pitch for people to get involved in the judicial branch of government, the third branch of government, in any way their state allows. If you're in a state that elects judges, get involved in judicial elections. Don't leave those off-year or non-November elections to lawyers and law enforcement people, because that's who predominantly controls these elections now. If you're in a state that appoints judges, at least turn out for re-elections for your district attorney and your sheriff and try to vote smart, rather than falling for the same old, tired "tough on crime" appeal. And then finally, no matter where you are, one rare opportunity to get involved with the third branch of government is to welcome jury service, rather than groaning and trying to evade it when you get a jury summons. We've made a very strong pitch about that.

Watching "Making a Murderer," you see how things happen and how easy it is for things to go wrong, even in how the media portrays the case. It was fascinating to watch the documentary makers watch the media throughout the series.

Buting: Another thing we're trying to do is to encourage people to be more critical consumers of the media. I'm not telling people to get off the Internet—the Internet can be a wonderful tool, but you have to be critical of what you read on the Internet as you should be when you watch the nightly news and you see the "perp walk," as they like to show, of the guy in the orange jumpsuit and shackles, and even though they are surrounded by police, he is shown as this dangerous monster. Even when you hear that somebody has been charged and he's quote-unquote confessed, what you see with the Brendan Dassey case in Making a Murderer should really make people pause and think, "Well, that's one possibility but maybe it’s not so clear that he confessed. Maybe he was kind of coerced or led into it.”

Strang: In general, we are sort of talking about increasing media literacy among the public, and awareness of the often manipulative role of law enforcement and lawyers on both sides of the case.

You're both taking that a step forward beyond the tour and the advocacy work you are already doing. Dean has a new show coming up and Jerry has a book deal. Can you tell me about your respective projects and what we can expect?

Buting: The book is coming out from HarperCollins publishing. It really started before "Making a Murderer." I've been really blessed to have a career with a number of really interesting cases. This particular case, the Avery case, had so many themes that are not unique to it and they are things I've seen in other cases of my own. It just seemed like the time was right to talk about that and share that with the public. Also, what it is like to be a criminal defense attorney because people are now more interested in that as well as some suggestions and ideas I've got for ways we might improve things. It's going to talk about more than the Avery case and "Making a Murderer," because I've had many other cases that, believe it or not, are just as or more interesting.

"Making a Murderer" kind of humanized the whole criminal justice process. Like you said, when you see a picture person on TV in shackles, now there is a personality behind it and a look behind what the media shows. Dean, is your show digging into the same sort of thing?

Strang: The concept of the show is to go to places where historically a contestable conviction occurred or a clear miscarriage of justice occurred and to sort of explore the locale and, I should say, more recent than contemporary cases that raise large questions about reliability of our criminal justice process or outcomes. So, it would kind of tramping around and maybe meeting people who are experts in a distance case, or people who are involved in some way in a very recent one.

Will either of you will be in the next season of "Making a Murderer?" What are your plans one the tour is done?

Buting: Well, we don't know if there really will be a second season of "Making a Murderer" and we wouldn't have any control if they would even want us in it.

Strang: I don't know what part of the story would include us at this point. At some point we're just going to get back to practicing law full time and continue to do right by our clients with rather than a lot of traveling and speaking.

Buting: That is my career that I've spent 35 years doing, defending people accused of crimes. I enjoy it, I enjoy advocating for them in court, but I am open to whatever paths are opened up to me. This is one I felt was an opportunity that we had to take to try to have a bigger conversation about things.

Do people stop you on the streets about it? How has it all affected your daily life?

Buting: I was in church this morning and as I was walking out someone approached me. "Aren't you...?" We talked for a while about criminal justice right there, so people are interested in all kinds of places and times.

By Jamie Ludwig

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