Jerry Buting, Dean Strang took on tough topics at the Keswick
REVIEW WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
It was a testament to the popularity of Netflix.
Having sold out the Keswick Theatre April 1 — with what sounds like an extremely-unlikely-to-sell-out conversation about the criminal justice system — Wisconsin defense attorneys Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, from the riveting documentary series “Making a Murderer,” stayed in the area an extra two days for an added second show April 3.
“I knew it would be well-received. I had no idea it would be of this level of interest,” Strang said on stage.
The legal dynamic duo, who are on a national tour, unsuccessfully defended Steven Avery in a high-profile murder trial in 2006, made even more high-profile after the 10-hour “Making a Murderer,” began streaming in December.
Working his way into a key talking point that Americans need to become better-educated consumers of media and how news is gathered, Strang pointed to local coverage he saw of the “perp walk” of Cherie Amoore, who is accused of kidnapping a baby at the King of Prussia Mall. “That’s not a presumption of innocence,” he commented, later adding that he respects the news media, especially “beat reporters” and “experienced reporters.”
He also appealed for a change of hearts and minds. “For the people who are guilty, we’ve got to stop de-humanizing them,” Strang said, adding that the same goes for victims of crime.
One of the audience questions, submitted in writing before the talk, asked if the justice system was prejudicial toward race and class. Hesitant to use the word “prejudicial,” Strang estimated that more than 80 percent of criminal defendants don’t have the money to hire a lawyer to defend them. “Our courts prosecute and process the poor,” he said.
Among the night’s biggest revelations:
•Described as “heartthrobs” in one audience question, Buting and Strang believe they know who murdered 25-year-old photographer Teresa Halbach in 2005, but declined to elaborate. Buting said on stage that the judge in the Avery murder trial added an “extremely unfair” requirement for the defense that if they identified a suspect of their own, they would need to prove motive.
•After declining to participate in the documentary series, “Making a Murderer”’s level of interest also caught prosecutor Ken Kratz off guard. Buting downplayed rebuttals by Kratz and TV legal commentator Nancy Grace that the filmmakers selectively left out incriminating DNA evidence found on the hood latch of Halbach’s vehicle. He called it “a transfer amount” so small that it likely came from accidental contamination by investigators gathering evidence. The filmmakers “focused on the major issues that were in dispute,” he said.
•Before “Making a Murderer” was finalized, neither of them had seen the damning video footage of a private investigator, supposedly working for Brendan Dassey’s defense attorney, pressuring the then-16-year-old nephew of Avery into a signed murder accomplice confession, without a parent or an attorney present. Dassey still has pending federal court dates, Buting said, hopeful that the interview would be admitted as evidence in his defense.
The duo cautioned parents that coerced confessions are typical, that their children are much more likely to have contact with police officers than when they were kids, and as a result need to be “more involved” to prevent what happened to Dassey.
•Flawed as it may be, they both believe the justice system works. “These are all just human beings in the system. Human beings are capable of progress,” Strang said. Although admitting to being uncomfortable on camera for the series, Buting feels that all courtrooms should have video cameras.
•According to Buting, Manitowoc County officers, which had been commended for their investigation of the Avery’s Auto Salvage yard/family compound in the murder case, were due to speak at a conference in Illinois. That engagement got canceled when “Making a Murderer” set the internet afire. The series accuses law enforcement officials of a conspiracy to plant evidence out of revenge over a civil lawsuit Avery lodged against the county over a wrongful conviction for sexual assault. After 18 years in prison, DNA evidence exonerated Avery in that case.
•For a long time, Strang — who doesn’t even like seeing photos of himself — couldn’t bring himself to watch “Making a Murderer,” even though he trusted the filmmakers because one was a lawyer.
•The legal standard of competency to stand trial is lower than you think. “You have to be somewhere above (the intelligence level of) a zucchini,” quipped Strang.
Someone from the audience held Strang’s and Buting’s feet to the fire, questioning their motives and accusing them of profiting from Halbach’s death. Strang responded that he wanted to have traveling public conversations about justice “a long time ago,” but joked that before “Making a Murderer,” not even his friends or colleagues were interested in that. If your brother or son is ever in legal trouble, “I think you’re going to want a good defense lawyer. I’m not gonna apologize for making a living,” he said.