Dean Strang currently represents the face of a profession that is not often given much notice in popular culture. Alongside fellow defence lawyer Jerry Buting, Strang was catapulted into public view when the Netflix original series, Making a Murderer, documented what has gone on to become one of the most infamous criminal trials of recent years: that of his client, Steven Avery.
“Steven Avery’s case in many ways approaches the unique,” Strang noted during his visit to the UCC campus in September, “just because of the history of the wrongful conviction and then, barely more than two years later, being arrested for an even more serious crime. And he was suing the local sheriff’s department in the meantime, so the constellation of factors there doesn’t repeat itself very often.”
Almost a year since its series premiere in December 2015, Making a Murderer has gripped viewers worldwide, with Avery’s murder trial and the apparent corruptness of the Manitowoc sheriff’s department continuing to incite heated debates among fans. With a second season officially confirmed by streaming service Netflix, and the recent overturning of Brendan Dassey’s conviction – otherwise known as Avery’s nephew, and co-accused in the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach – it seems as though public fascination with Avery and his apparent innocence, or lack thereof, is set to continue.
Wisconsin-based lawyer Strang has been described on various occasions as the “unlikely star” of the series, even gathering a fan following who dub themselves ‘Strangers’. Not only did Strang appeal to the public on a personal level, his legal background is highly impressive: an adjunct professor of law, he holds shares in three of Wisconsin’s leading law firms and is co-founder of StrangBradley, LLC. These represent only a subsection of the defence lawyer’s CV, with other feats including book deals — his next book is due out in 2018 — and charity work, including his work with the Wisconsin Innocence Project:
“It’s important for law students especially to get involved in innocence projects because the professionals in the system – the lawyers, the judges – so often fail to find and correct a wrongful conviction through the ordinary appellate process. And many of these people would never achieve their freedom or be exonerated were it not for the efforts of law students, undergraduates – outsiders who work on these cases years after the insiders have given up.”
Strang was, however, careful to add: “[but] you don’t want to become overly focused on innocence and then draw the conclusion that what we do to the guilty doesn’t matter.”
This well-rounded approach to the profession is typical of Strang, whose sense of justice is palpable. It is exactly these qualities which make him so fascinating to listen to, as evidenced by his immensely popular tour of the UK and Ireland, and indeed the sheer level of interest in his recent public lecture in the Boole Lecture Theatre, as organised by the UCC Law Society. Strang’s insights into the American criminal justice system go far beyond Avery’s case, stretching into the issue of racial and economic discrimination on behalf of the courts; capital punishment in the modern-day US; and what he refers to as “the mass incarceration binge that the US has been on since the 1980s”, which has “so disproportionately affected people of colour, at a rate of three and four times their background percentage of the population”.
Considering that the imprisonment rate of United States of America has skyrocketed in recent decades, Strang’s choice of wording is fitting. The ‘three strikes’ policy as well as a general shift in emphasis towards increased punitiveness in English-speaking countries are examples of contributing factors to an unprecedented imprisonment rate of 695 per 100,000 people in modern-day America (this is according to the World Prison Brief: www.prisonstudies.org). By contrast, England and Wales can claim the highest rate in Europe at 146, while the US dwarfs Ireland’s meagre rate of 79 per 100,000. With nearly 9 times as many people in prison as we have here in Ireland, it’s understandable that the US system should hold some degree of fascination over here. Considering the ongoing presidential election in the US and the effect national policies have on the criminal justice system, it’s interesting to consider the effect Strang fears Trump’s candidacy has elicited – a man who infamously posits that the solution to illegal immigration is to build a literal wall across the Mexican border.
“I don’t know what – if anything – he actually believes in,” Strang admitted, “but the movement and the candidacy as apart from the man are very serious. They’re very serious. And part of it has to be laid at the feet of the democratic party and educated elite in the United States, because there are a vast number of Americans who feel left behind in the economic recovery; who feel disempowered because they don’t have a high level of education or they’re not in a profession or they don’t live in a trendy city. That feeling of resentment among a large number of working people and middle class or lower middle class people who are just stuck or losing ground economically – that’s real. And it does have to be laid at the feet of Republican party elites, Democratic party elites, and all of us who are prospering and leaving others behind.”
“The income gap in America is growing, and it’s at levels it hasn’t been at since the 1890s and early 1900s. That said, part of this right-wing populist anger also has some ugly aspects to it that I think many of those people themselves must confront at some point. There’s a racist element to it. There’s an anger at the changing demographics of the United States, and that people of European descent are rapidly becoming a plurality at best… as between the sexes: the monopoly on income and power and authority that men have always had is giving away gradually as women have ever more diverse roles in US society.”
“The reasons are many, but my concern about that candidacy and about the movement it represents is real. And it’s not isolated to the United States: you see this with Marie Le Pen and her father in France; you see it with rightist parties in Scandinavia; you see it with rightist movements in Germany – sort of a right-wing, populist sense of resentment, and the problem is that – without sounding arrogant about it – what the United States does, matters well outside our borders. We’re the largest market in the world, we’re in many ways a – coercive force for better and worse, so I’m very concerned about the rise of what Donald Trump represents, or has tapped.”
Strang does not shy away from confronting the issue of racism within the criminal justice system in the US. Although what he terms the “catalyst” for civil rights movement Black Lives Matter, for example, has been the well-documented police brutality characterised in the media mostly as the shooting of unarmed African-Americans, he admits a belief that the role of the courts system has been a “contributing factor” alongside “a whole collage” of socioeconomic considerations. The problem is a difficult one to ignore, considering that approximately 13.2% of the overall US population is African-American, while the prison population stood at 37% as of 2014, according to the US Department of Justice. Equally as interesting are Strang’s thoughts on the role race and ethnicity plays in the decision of the majority of US states to hold onto the death penalty, despite other developed democracies waving goodbye to capital punishment (Ireland abolished the practice for good in 1990).
“If I had to speculate on why we cling to the death penalty,” he revealed, “I unfortunately would say that some uncomfortable part of the reason relates to our heterogeneity, and to our ongoing discomfort with race and ethnicity. We are a heterogeneous society, and we therefore have power dynamics that break along ethnic and racial lines, and that’s not an entire explanation, I don’t pretend that it is: but that’s a part, I’m convinced, of why we cling, in some places, to capital punishment.”
As perhaps the world’s most famous defence lawyer, Strang’s strange brand of celebrity shows no sign of ceasing in the coming months. A new documentary-based series of his own, unrelated to the Avery case, was announced to be in the works in April 2016, and is sure to see a positive reception when it is eventually released on the same streaming service that launched his media career. Considering the sheer amount of work Strang has taken on, it has to be asked: what draws him to defence law? Why did he choose this path? And why would he want to defend “those people”?
“I defend that person because he could be me. He could be my friend; he could be a relative. The alienation that’s inherent in the question “how can you defend those people?” is a false premise. All of us, almost all of us have committed a crime in the US, especially in a very legalistic society.”
“Because the enforcement of the law disparately falls on the impoverished or those in lower socioeconomic classes, and that gets linked to race and ethnicity…. So, for me, by defending those people I’m defending my country, and our sense of values, and I’m trying to make – I’m doing my little part, or I’m trying to do my little part, to make it a more fair, more merciful, more open-hearted country.”
“Because I think we’re at our best when we’re all of that. I really do.”
Making a Murderer is available now on Netflix.
Many thanks to Aoife McCarthy and the ever-wonderful UCC Law Society