On 4 October 2017, Dean Strang visited UQ and was hosted by the TCB School of Law. Dean Strang is probably best known as one of Steven Avery’s attorneys in the murder trial made famous by the cult classic, Making a Murderer. In a candid and conversational Q&A, UQ students had the chance to put to Dean burning questions about the hit documentary and gain insight into his life as a criminal defence lawyer.
For those not familiar with the case, Steven Avery was wrongfully convicted of rape and attempted murder in 1985. After serving 18 years in prison, Avery had his conviction overturned and upon his release in 2003 filed a multi-million-dollar civil lawsuit against Manitowoc County for wrongful conviction and imprisonment.
However, in 2005, Avery was arrested and tried for the murder of Teresa Halbach. This is where Dean entered Avery’s life as one of his attorneys. It is also where the Netflix documentary started to follow Avery’s life in great detail.
Avery was ultimately convicted of murder and remains behind bars. Only a day before the interview, Avery had applied for a retrial though leave was refused.
The question was put to Dean whether he thought the documentary gave a fair portrayal of the 2007 murder trial. His answer was that, all things considered, he thought it was fair. Admittedly, editorial decisions have to be made when condensing a 6-week trial to 2 or 3 hours of footage, but he thought that the documentary had given an honest and candid representation of the different characters in the courtroom.
Dean, by his own account, never aspired to be a lawyer, and somewhat stumbled into practice after deciding that a career as a political cartoonist was not a sensible vocation. At the time, legal studies had an almost guaranteed job at the end and for Dean it was a way of putting off questions about what he was going to do in life. Initially a civil lawyer dealing with pensions and corporate law, Dean ‘fell in with’ a group of public defenders, though his interaction with criminal law was initially on the prosecution side. At the end of 10 apparently disastrous months as a prosecutor, he took a job as a public defender and has remained in defence ever since. He reflected positively on his choice to begin as a prosecutor and recommended this to those seeking a career in criminal justice.
In reflecting on the changes to the criminal justice system that he has witnessed during his career, Dean highlighted two major changes. The first was DNA evidence. While acknowledging that DNA evidence is only conclusive in a small number of cases (ie it does not speak to the presence or absence of consent in sexual assault cases, nor does it have any bearing on ‘pen cases’ such as fraud), Dean felt that this was an incredibly important development and one that had the potential to revolutionise criminal law. The second was the prevalence of audio and video recording of police interviews. Dean lamented the reluctance of certain US state police departments to adopting continuous recording of police interviews, and felt that this type of practice was vital to the proper working of the justice system.
Discussion moved to why the public is currently fascinated by true crime stories like ‘Making a Murderer’ and ‘Serial’. According to Dean, the public seems to be less enthralled by the true crime and is more interested by the perceived injustices. As Dean pointed out, the younger generations access media in a very different way to those who grew up before the advent of the internet and this influences how news stories are consumed and analysed. While true crime is by no means a new medium, the public seems more and more interested with how the process works rather than getting a solid conclusion from a television show. The public seems to be content to be given an equivocal answer at the end of a story as long as the grey area of the case is investigated thoroughly on the way.
Dean did, however, make the point that there is some danger in true crime becoming the subject of entertainment if the audiences forget that the ‘characters’ are really people. On one level, if entertainment is just how we spend our free time, then learning about true crime is a reasonable exercise. But if audiences are not asking questions, and get lost in the drama, then it starts becoming more of an impermissible intrusion into a very private traumatic event. At the end of the day, the victim’s family never asked for any publicity of their private lives.
It was clear throughout the interview that Dean is passionate about justice. When asked what compelled him to take on Avery’s case, he answered that it was partly because a defence lawyer should be able to look at a person who has fallen from public favour, and want to defend them. Dean explained that at the time of Avery’s arrest for the murder charge, there was a general feeling of disgust because in the public’s eyes, this was a man who had been given a second chance at life who had thrown it away and committed a heinous crime. This is the very type of person who needs a good defence lawyer. Dean did admit that he had some personal incentive for taking on the case, having spent 5 years practicing in the federal sphere, he wanted to prove that he could walk into a state courtroom without tripping and making a fool of himself!
An audience member asked Dean whether he had ever represented a guilty client. His response: yes, frequently. However, he said that he was yet to be approached by a client who was open about their guilt but insisted on Dean working towards an acquittal. According to Dean, many of his ‘guilty’ clients merely wanted the best sentencing option, or to know their chances of obtaining a lower fine. Dean said that there had been clients who appeared to be lying when asserting their innocence, but made the important point that it is not his role to be a judge, just to be a representative. Indeed, where lawyers pre-judge their client’s guilt, they may themselves become an instrument of a wrongful conviction.
To conclude, Dean was asked what advice he would offer to law students. His response gave great insight into Dean as a person and a professional. He said it is important to hold on to our humanity and our humility. This has obvious positive consequences for the legal profession and legal system more broadly, though it also benefits us as people. Dean had reflected on the personal struggles he had witnessed colleagues suffer when grappling with some of the more draining aspects of criminal law work and said it was important to remember compassion, empathy and to look after one another.