Last winter, the wildly popular Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer turned a pair of Wisconsin attorneys, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, into celebrities. Although Strang and Buting weren’t able to spare Steven Avery from a murder conviction—he was charged after serving 18 years in prison for an unrelated sexual assault he didn’t commit—the documentary raises significant questions about how the American justice system works.
Now the two lawyers are on a speaking tour. “A Conversation on Justice” brings them to the Chicago Theatre June 3. The Reader spoke to Buting about the tour and the series by phone last week.
What’s the idea behind the speaking tour?
After the documentary came out, we did a lot of interviews. Particularly with television news, two or three or four minutes ended up on the air. There are very serious issues that are raised by this documentary, and you can’t deal with them in that short a length of time. The idea that we would do these 90-minute moderator events grew out of that.
We generally get local moderators. About half the event is questions from the moderator, and as people come in, they’re given the opportunity to fill out questions. The moderator picks which ones to answer, and that’s the second half. Every time we’ve done it, there are new questions that pop up.
How has the reception been so far?
Very good. Some people are interested in the case or the documentary, but others are, “Where do we go from here? How common are the problems that we see? How do we try and improve the system?”
Where do the two cases from the series stand now?
In Brendan Dassey’s case [Dassey, Avery’s intellectually challenged 16-year-old nephew, was convicted as his accomplice], his original appeal through federal court is still pending—waiting for a federal judge to go through everything and render a decision.
Avery’s appeals were done. He now has new counsel, [Downers Grove-based] Kathleen Zellner, and a team that she’s put together that’s been working to get his case reopened, which primarily would involve some kind of newly discovered factual or scientific evidence, or maybe jury misconduct—things that haven’t been raised before.
Are they expecting a decision in Brendan’s case soon?
It could be any day; there’s no specific deadline. Brendan has very good attorneys from the Northwestern University Center on Wrongful Convictions of Youth, and they’ve done an excellent job of focusing on the aspects of false confession. Brendan’s case all came down to his confession, because there wasn’t really any physical evidence that collaborated what he said. I still haven’t heard of anybody who’s watched that documentary and thinks that Brendan Dassey is guilty. It’s shocking to see how easily he was manipulated into saying things. That’s a function of his youth, his mental limitations, and inexperience with police.
Are you still working on either of these cases?
Not directly. We turn over any tips that we get [to the new attorneys].
How did you get involved initially?
Dean and I both came about three and a half or four months after [Avery] was originally charged with the Teresa Halbach murder. Civil rights attorneys settled the case that they had for the wrongful [sexual-assault] conviction and 18 years imprisonment, really for a paltry sum compared to what they had sued for—they sued for $36 million and settled for $400,000. But after the civil rights attorneys were paid, there was $240,000 left to pay for his defense in the new criminal charge.
Were you surprised by the response to the doc?
Oh yeah, no question I was surprised. I knew it was good, but I had no idea it would catch fire like this. It obviously struck a nerve with the public—and not just in America, all over the world. We got thousands of e-mails.
You and Dean became instant heartthrobs.
That was a bigger surprise to us than anything. And very awkward and embarrassing initially. But after a while, what I liked was the number of people who wrote me and didn’t talk about how sexy Jerry Buting was, but instead, how they were inspired to consider going into a law career, and in particular, criminal defense.
What’s your response to the backlash against the documentary—claims that it was unbalanced, that certain evidence was not included?
That was really the campaign of one man: Ken Kratz, the special prosecutor. He didn’t come off looking very good in the documentary, and he immediately pushed back and tried to claim that the series was biased and left out all this evidence in the prosecution’s case. In fact, he’d been asked many times if he wanted to participate, and he refused. It was really sour grapes, if you ask me.
Yes, there was some evidence left out—it was a six-week trial. There was defense evidence left out as well. But what the filmmakers really did, I think, is capture the majority of the evidence that was the most disputed at trial.
After the documentary came out, [Kratz] started raising [questions about] DNA on the hood latch and all this other stuff. But go back and look at the transcript of his closing argument. The amount of time an attorney spends on an issue in closing is a hint about how important they think that piece of evidence is to their case. Out of hundreds of pages of transcript, hours and hours of his closing arguments, 15 lines—less than half a page—is all he spent on that hood-latch DNA thing.
And it’s because the trial evidence was very different. We were able to show that there were explanations for all of the things that he was trying to claim were sinister. The DNA that was on the hood latch, their own experts testified at trial that they’d been inside the vehicle, sampling the evidence, and then got out to open up the hood, and didn’t take off the gloves. The amount of DNA that was found on that hood latch was very small, consistent with that kind of innocent transfer [from blood they’d found inside the car]. And our defense was that his blood had been planted in the car. There were no fingerprints on the hood latch, which, if you were leaving your DNA, there should be.
Is there going to be a season two?
I haven’t talked to the filmmakers for quite a while, but if Zellner finds something, there’ll be a motion filed for a new trial. Then there would be hearings, and the filmmakers said they would be there for those kind of events. Apparently they’re also trying to do some interviews behind the scenes, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see something else.
Is it possible that Zellner may find issues with the way you handled the case that would be grounds for reopening?
That’s always possible. It’s a human endeavor and it’s not impossible for us to miss something. Just from all the crowdsourcing, there’s a whole lot more information and sources of information available now that we never had, and she may come up with something that’ll be useful.
Are you still able to practice law while you’re on tour?
Most of our speaking is on the weekends, and then I’m back in the office for three or four days. This is for a limited time, and I think it’s an opportunity that we needed to take on, while the public is interested in the system.
Going forward, Dean’s going to have his own show—Dean Strang: Road to Justice?
It’s something he’s exploring. I’m writing a book. It’s coming out in 2017 and will draw on not just the Avery case but some other cases with common themes. And then, some suggestions I have to improve the system.
Everything from the interrogation of juveniles—the techniques that are used—to the chronic underfunding of indigent defense, the mass incarceration of people, and the media—particularly the way that television tends to cover these cases. And people’s opportunity to influence the system through jury duty, which they often try to get out of when they shouldn’t.
There’s a whole lot of things that can be changed if people are willing, and I think we can make some improvements, however incremental they may be. v