Five Questions with the Making a Murderer Defense Attorneys
December is usually a time for brewing the perfect mug of hot chocolate and perfecting your Christmas decoration skills, but 2015 introduced a new hobby: Getting outraged by the failures of the criminal justice system. The multi-episode, rejected-by-network-television, decade-in-the-making documentary Making a Murderer hit Netflix and turned the nation into a group of amateur detectives obsessed with whether or not Wisconsinite Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey were guilty of murder, completely betrayed by the legal system, or some combination of both. It also made stars of Avery’s pair of sharp defense attorneys, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, who will be speaking at Berklee this weekend. The duo is kicking off their “A Conversation on Justice” speaking tour in Boston before they travel across the country to hold in-depth chats about the infamous case. We chatted with Strang and Buting about the case that inspired the series, the issues facing the criminal justice system today, and more.
What’s the goal you hope to accomplish by going on this speaking tour?
Jerry Buting: It was pretty early on after the series was released and the media started contacting us. There were very limited opportunities to discuss the issues that really resonate with people and that are depicted so clearly in the documentary. We thought it’d be good if we could just have a forum or something where we could have a conversation about this and that blew into the idea of doing what we’re doing now, which is going around and having conversations with people, talking about the problems with our justice system and talking about ways and ideas to improve the system as it is.
Generally speaking, what are some of the issues with the criminal justice system that people aren’t necessarily aware of?
Dean Strang: I think the public is dimly aware of some of the significant changes in the juvenile justice system in the last 20 years, just how far we’ve drifted from a child model of juvenile justice.
Buting: A big one is the interrogation techniques that are used on juveniles and vulnerable people that really the public, I think, had no clue was going on until they saw what happened to poor Brendan Dassey.
Strang: And the fact that there are much more reliable methods in use now in many English-speaking countries and we’re 50 or 60 years stuck in the past in this country. That is another big issue.
Were you surprised to see the response from fans after the series aired and that people were finally taking an interest in important criminal justice issues?
Buting: From my part, certainly and I think Dean as well. I mean, a lot of these issues, they didn’t just pop up overnight. They’ve been simmering and festering and erupting like a boil for a long time. We’ve talked about it, but the general public doesn’t know about a lot of this and they haven’t been focused and that interested in what happens in their local courthouses unless it involves, directly, a member of their own family. Then they’re often shocked to see what happens. We see this, not just in the Avery case, but all over the country. It’s very encouraging that people are now getting more concerned and willing to become more involved in their criminal justice system. Ultimately, they need to take ownership of it.
At any point while you were working on the Avery case, did you have a moment where you completely lost faith in the system?
Strang: No, I think we both came in with realistic levels of doubt to begin. Jerry had been practicing for more than 25 years in criminal defense work by the time of this trial and I was almost 20 years into criminal defense practice then. So it’s not a loss of faith, it’s just a recognition that in many cases for one reason or another, the system goes askew.
What do you believe will have to happen in order for real change to take place? Is it going to have to take more of a grassroots effort?
Buting: I think it is going to have to be a grassroots movement. Part of it is, when it comes to sentences and sentence lengths and mandatory minimums, for years some politicians have been getting tough on crime, as they say, just by increasing penalties and becoming more punitive and throwing more money at corrections and leaving less for education and healthcare and other needs. People are going to have to say that enough is enough.
“Making A Murderer‘s Dean Strang & Jerry Buting: A Conversation On Justice” tour stops at the Berklee Performance Center on Saturday, April 16. For more information check out ConversationOnJustice.com.