Attorney Dean Strang discusses ‘Making a Murderer,’ criminal justice system

Strang: “I was amazed at how much time this series was devoted to an actual trial… I thought they did a pretty good job of including major points the prosecution and jury were talking about at that time.”

When associate journalism professor Katherine Reed asked Attorney Dean Strang whether he still believes Steven Avery is innocent, Strang presented the audience with a different question.

“The question we have to answer is: ‘Was it proven beyond a reasonable doubt or was it not?’” he said. “It has to be enough in the human system of justice to answer that question and live with the answer.”

The attorney spoke Wednesday at the Missouri Theatre about his work with the the high-profile case of Avery, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2007 for the murder of Teresa Halbach in 2005. The case was profiled in Netflix’s documentary series “Making a Murderer” in December. The series detailed how the defense, including Strang, argued that the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department framed Avery for the murder.

Sitting with Reed, Strang expressed his satisfaction with how the documentary portrayed the case and the six-week long trial.

“I was amazed at how much time this series was devoted to an actual trial,” he said. “I thought they did a pretty good job of including major points the prosecution and jury were talking about at that time.”

The documentary series has received some backlash concerning evidence presented in the court that was left out of the series. However, Strang believes that the most important points were included in the series.

“Even at the relatively lavish three-plus hours, a lot was left out on the defense side and the prosecution side,” Strang said. “Lots of things that the filmmakers left out required a lot of context or were indecisive or inconclusive.”

Strang also provided some insight into some points presented in the case that were cut from the series. He said that there was DNA found on the hood of Halbach’s car that matched Avery’s DNA. An inadvertent transfer could have happened when the examiner was looking at Avery’s blood on another part of the car and failed to change his gloves when going to open the hood of the car.

This is Strang’s first and only case for which he has argued the police planted evidence.

“It’s very rare that the defense makes a frame man conviction of the police, or anyone for that matter,” Strang said.

Nevertheless, from the evidence that they found during the examination of the case, Strang believes he had a strong argument.

“If the police ever looked at anyone else, you couldn’t tell from the police reports,” Strang said. “This narrowed in on Steven Avery immediately.”

Strang also detailed the defense’s fight against the media’s image of Avery before the trial began to obtain an objective jury. A March 2006 press conference was aired on seven major news networks across the state, so finding a jury with a “blank slate” in Wisconsin was next to impossible.

“The police and prosecution in any criminal case get the first opportunity to lay out the narrative,” Strang said. “(The public had) been bombarded with a media narrative and police narrative that he was guilty.”

The prosecution and defense both agreed to have jury questionnaires sent out to hundreds of possible jurors to find the most suitable people to serve. The pool was narrowed down to 130 questionnaires.

“Out of those 130 who made it as possible candidates, 129 said they thought Avery was guilty,” Strang said.

During the conversation, Strang also addressed problems with the criminal justice system in general. He pointed out that one in 25 people in prison charged with homicide may be innocent. The conviction rate is also 85 to 95 percent across the country.

“We are the leader in per capita incarcerations (in the world) and nearly the leader in the length of those sentences,” Strang said.

He believes that this has a lot to do with false confidence in the police.

“Aside from superficial political discontent, most Americans trust the government at state and local levels,” Strang said. “The problem is that it does run into the imperative that we not assume they’re right if we sit on a jury.”

Strang expressed his discontent in the juvenile justice system concerning the case of Avery’s nephew Brendan Dassey, who was charged with assisting in the homicide, mutilation of a corpse and first-degree sexual assault. Dassey admitted to his charges, but his attorneys filed a writ of habeas corpus for a retrial due to coercion by the prosecution when he was questioned in school without his parents’ consent.

“The schoolhouse is also a police precinct house, so the chances that your child will come in contact with police in school are much higher that when I was in school,” Strang said. “We’ve lost the best interest of the child in juvenile justice.”

Strang urged the audience to think critically about how the justice system is serving them.

“We ought to be pushing our legislators to roll back the severity of changes to the juveniles justice system in the last 25 years,” he said.

Edited by Waverly Colville | wcolville@themaneater.com

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