Having binge-watched Making a Murderer during January’s epic snow, my law-partner husband and I attended the DPAC presentation: “Dean Strang and Jerry Buting: A Conversation on Justice.” Dean is a UVA Law graduate, as is my husband. Jerry is a UNC Law graduate, as am I. My husband taught Jerry contracts and UCC. On that cold January day, we felt an affinity for both. When the NCBA arranged a member event outing including a pre-presentation meeting with Dean and Jerry, pictured above, we said “Count us in!”
As the world now knows, Dean and Jerry defended Steven Avery against murder charges in the tragic death of Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc County, Wis. The Netflix documentary about the case is an internet sensation. The public conversation about the separate convictions of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey includes the topics of wrongful conviction, police misconduct and prosecutorial misconduct. The documentary generated so much interest that a petition to pardon Steven Avery addressed to President Barack Obama (who has no authority in this state case) garnered more than half a million signatures.
During our private meeting with Dean and Jerry and the public presentation, lots of questions were asked about the case. One of interest to me was how two defense attorneys ended up in a documentary filmed during a murder trial. The answer: Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos began their work with the Avery family before either Dean or Jerry were engaged as counsel. The film crew was a reality when their representation began. They did not choose it. They had trepidation about it. Both now believe that it has cast light where light must be cast.
In our pre-presentation meeting, we discussed the Wisconsin Rules of Evidence at the time of the trial and how they differed in meaningful ways from those of other jurisdictions. An example: Wisconsin was not a Daubert jurisdiction. Our analysis of whether the FBI EDTA blood test should have been admitted was tempered by that realization. Dean and Jerry’s explanation of how that evidence came to be presented to them mid-trial drew sighs and nods from the lawyers. Lawyers watch Making a Murderer differently. We may accept things that non-lawyers do not. And we recognize as too common things that came as a shock to the public.
The DPAC presentation was really “A Conversation on Justice” as billed. While Dean and Jerry answered questions about the show, both used the “microphone” given to them by the show’s success to discuss the criminal justice system. They hope to spark change by generating a larger public conversation.
Perhaps that is why my take-away from the presentation has more to do with lawyering than with the docuseries. I found Dean and Jerry to be dedicated lawyers. Having found themselves in a high profile case that is now a sensation, they are using unsolicited fame to focus on change. They are lawyers who work hard to represent their clients, who feel for their clients, their families and the families of the victim of crimes. Like all of us, they relive their cases, the “what ifs” and the “should we haves.” To lose a case when you believe your client is not guilty is hard. To speak professionally and eloquently about the process and the changes needed in response is professionalism. If you get a chance to meet Dean and Jerry or hear them speak, do it. They demonstrate what it means to be a lawyer, not what it means to be a celebrity.