In spite of the success of true-crime shows Serial and The Jinx, most cultural observers would not have predicted the popularity of yet another show based on true crime, Making a Murderer, a series hailed by some as “Netflix’s most significant show ever.”
Filmed over ten years, Making a Murderer follows Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man who served 18 years in prison for sexual assault before being exonerated by DNA evidence. The show’s hook comes when filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos reveal that just over two years after being released from prison, Avery was arrested and eventually found guilty of murdering 25-year-old Teresa Halbach—a case partially investigated by the same county he was currently suing for $36 million dollars. Avery’s 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, was also sentenced for the crime.
Most of the Making a Murderer’s focus lingers on the resulting court cases and Avery’s claims of conspiracy. In many ways, the title of the series operates as a contrasting thesis of sorts. Did the state frame an innocent man, thus turning him into something he is not? Or, if Avery really is guilty of murder, was his warped psyche a result of being unjustly locked away for 18 years? Despite one’s interpretation of the evidence (and title), Making a Murderer finds value in somberly gazing at the pulleys and levers of America’s current justice system.
Since the show’s release, the internet has run wild with theories on the case, guesses that range from slightly plausible to wildly absurd. In addition to conspiracy theories, much of the chatter focuses on Dean Strang, one of Avery’s defense attorneys during the Halbach case. Since Making a Murderer hit Netflix in December, Strang has achieved a sort of celebrity status—he’s been described as anything from “kind” and “articulate,” to “Defender of justice, keeper of my heart” (See here).
Recently, Christ and Pop Culture spoke with Dean Strang about his reaction to Making a Murderer, the way in which losing Avery’s case weighed on him, and why he believes this show is important—regardless of whether audiences think Avery is guilty or not.
Christ and Pop Culture: Have you seen Making a Murderer? If so, do you believe it represented Mr. Avery’s cases well?
Dean Strang: Yes, I did. I thought it covered the arc of it in the courts fairly.
CaPC: You’re kind of “internet famous”because of the documentary. There are people online discussing your fashion choices; individuals talking about how well they thought you did in the case. How are you dealing with this newfound fame?
Strang: I am trying to let it simply go on without me. I am aware of some of it. Some of my friends are sending me links to things in order to tease me. It’s distracting. Even at the level at which I am participating, it is distracting. And if I dove into it too much it would be disorienting.You’re not watching fiction. You’re watching real people’s lives …It’s not entertainment, it’s a legitimate matter for public viewing, and it’s a legitimate matter for an intelligent, serious public discussion. The line between that sort of serious, quite proper public discussion and frivolous entertainment seems to me not very blurry.
CaPC: As far as Mr. Avery’s murder trial, did you believe that it was winnable?
Strang: I anticipated that it would be a very hard case to win, especially with the pervasive and inflammatory pretrial publicity. You can ask jurors to set that aside, but they are only human. We are all affected consciously and unconsciously by the information we absorb in popular culture—both in good ways and bad. Given the pervasive and lurid quality of that publicity—and its obvious premise that Avery was guilty—Jerry [Buting, Avery’s other lawyer] and I knew this was going to be very hard. Not impossible, but very hard. Not something we shouldn’t undertake, but it would be very difficult.
CaPC: Former D.A. Ken Kratz accused the filmmakers of leaving out vital pieces of evidence in the Avery case. In one statement, he said: “You don’t want to muddy up a perfectly good conspiracy movie with what actually happened, and certainly not provide the audience with the evidence the jury considered to reject that claim.” How would you respond to this accusation?
Strang: I am not a filmmaker, but the trial went a full six weeks, five days a week, with full workdays. If you do the math, you are talking about over 200 hours of evidence. Nobody can make a 200-hour film. Nobody would watch a 200-hour film. Making a Murderer devoted a pretty lavish three hours to one trial, Mr. Avery’s trial, and another hour to Mr. Dassey’s trial. If you focus on the case I was on, the Avery case, the show gave us three-plus hours of just his jury trial itself—longer than the film Doctor Zhivago used to cover the entire Russian revolution. I suppose that the nature of making a movie is that you have to distill down to the essence. As someone who had a front row seat, and heard every word of the trial, I thought that the filmmakers did a good job of presenting the strongest, most significant points and evidence that the state made, and the strongest most significant points, evidence, and arguments that the defense made. Now, less significant things, things that were murkier, things that required more significant explanation, didn’t make the cut for either the prosecution or the defense. To me, these were reasonable and fair editorial decisions. A lot of the state’s evidence, I think all of the state’s most significant evidence, was included.
Everybody’s editorial judgment would be different, I assume, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that the film is inaccurate or that it omitted reality. That is really not fair, especially coming from anyone who was offered repeated chances to cooperate with the filmmakers, to sit down and be filmed, and turned those chances down repeatedly.
CaPC: Making a Murderer has become a pop culture sensation. In some ways, this is a positive development—the more people talk about this case, the more attention generated on how the justice system works. That being said, what about the devolution of this story into mere entertainment? Do you have any words of caution for people in terms of how they view stories like this?
Strang: You’re not watching fiction. You’re watching real people’s lives. You’re peeking at the grief of a family who had a 25-year-old daughter murdered. You’re watching the agony of a defendant’s family grappling with the possibility that lightning has struck them unfairly not once, but twice. You’re watching a 16-year-old boy who’s developmentally delayed, who’s naive, who has difficulty learning and making his way through the world, being manipulated by intelligent, well-trained adult police officers. It’s not entertainment, it’s a legitimate matter for public viewing, and it’s a legitimate matter for an intelligent, serious public discussion. The line between that sort of serious, quite proper public discussion and frivolous entertainment seems to me not very blurry.
Beyond that, you used a good word—devolution—here. I worry a little bit about the armchair sleuthing—watching something as a detached viewer and then trying to solve the crime on the basis of a film. I see lots and lots of viewers of this film making the same cognitive mistake that I think the police made, which is getting a bit of information, forming a hunch about what really happened, and then advancing forward, whether consciously or not, to shape every additional piece of information or evidence to fit that initial hunch or hypothesis. We’ve got armchair sleuths around the world saying, “I know what really happened, it was so-and-so who did it! Here’s how it happened!” That might or might not be a hypothesis worth pursuing, but you have to pursue it objectively, and you have to pursue it in a serious way. I am sorry to see people making the same mistake that I think the police made here.
CaPC: In one of your final interviews for the documentary, you say you almost wish Avery were guilty. Would you elaborate on that statement?
Strang: I don’t wish it for his sake, obviously. I don’t wish it for the Halbachs’ sake or Steven Avery’s sake. In a sense, that statement was and is a self-protective wish.
Steven Avery came to me with the only money he ever was going to have, and together the two of us [Strang and Jerry Buting] took his case. He put his faith in us; he put his trust in us. He put all his chips on us. Then I lost his case. And the consequences of my losing his case were, for him, the most serious consequences Wisconsin law allows—he received a slow death sentence. He received life in prison without parole. As things stand, he’s simply stuck in a cage, waiting for the biological moment of death.
Yet, I have to go sleep at night. I have to go on with my life. I have to continue to do my work. I owe my wife, my family, my friends, the obligation of being present to them—loving them and giving them what they deserve. So there’s a self-protective quality to saying: “I don’t know that I can carry this around if I believe that there’s an innocent man sitting in a cage because I was the second best lawyer in the room.” It’s a very narrow self-protective hope that I was expressing. It was honest—probably a little too self-revealing.
CaPC: At the root of Christian theology is the idea of justice. Whether someone believes that Mr. Avery is guilty or not, why is this case important in terms of justice and human rights?
Strang: It shows procedural weaknesses and failures of the criminal justice process that can affect any of us. All of us can decide never to commit a crime, but none of us can decide with any certainty that we won’t be accused of a crime. If we were accused of a crime, we would want a process that works for us. Think about how you would want the system to work if you were in the defendant’s chair at a murder trial—and you were innocent. You can bring this right back to Christian and Judaic theology, which is, you should want done to others what you would want done to you. You’d want a system that recognized the Golden Rule in designing and adhering to its values and its processes. Aside from whether a given defendant is guilty or not guilty, Making a Murderer reveals some worrisome systemic failings and flaws.
CaPC: In the cases of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey, how, from this point forward, can the system go about bringing them justice?
Strang: By demonstrating the humility to confront, acknowledge and correct mistakes and later, if at all, worry about where to place blame for those mistakes. The first priority really ought to be about getting it right, especially when somebody’s liberty has been taken away from him. If the conviction is unjust, every new day he wakes up in a cage is another day of lost liberty him; a new injury to him and to the values that our justice system professes.
Special assistance for this interview was provided by Michael Graham.