Wrongfully convicted of sexual assault and attempted murder, Steven Avery of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, spent 18 years in prison before the Innocence Project and DNA testing led to his exoneration and release from custody. It also came to light that to keep Avery in a Wisconsin prison, the police had suppressed evidence that would have exonerated him. Sounds all too familiar, doesn’t it?
Once Avery was released in 2003, he sued the police and city that had wrongfully imprisoned him. In 2005, on the eve of a possible $40 million payday, the town was shocked when Avery was charged with the murder of local photographer Teresa Halbach; and again, local police were involved. It just so happened that two documentary filmmakers decided to follow the second shocking trial to the bitter end. And so we are given the 10-part Netflix miniseries Making a Murderer. It’s shocking, jaw-dropping, nail-biting television that keeps its audience on the edge of its seat during a whirlwind through the American criminal justice system. It’s particularly timely given the current disconnect the public seems to have with our police.
Folks who shared the national obsession with the Netflix original Making a Murderer were in good company Friday night, the Durham Performing Arts Center presented A Conversation on Justice, featuring Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, the two attorneys who defended Steven Avery throughout his murder trial. They appeared at DPAC to discuss the Avery case, their legal maneuvering, and justice in America.
The evening was moderated by WRAL-TV crime reporter Amanda Lamb, an ace journalist who has spent more time in the courtroom than most trial attorneys. Lamb peppered Strang and Buting with questions that were solicited from the audience before the show began. She deftly moved from question to question, giving us a broad perspective of the trial through the eyes of the defense.
The attorneys framed each issue, discussed bits of tampered evidence, and revealed the hard work and tribulations of being defense attorneys in a sensational murder trial. According to Jerry Buting, in the United States — contrary to popular belief — defendants are presumed guilty until they are proven innocent.
Before the Avery murder trial, the prospective jurors were asked whether they believed Avery was guilty. Without having seen a shred of evidence, only local media coverage, 129 out of the 130 potential jurors were convinced that Avery was the one who committed the crime. And as for failing to take the stand in his own defense, according to Dean Strang, in criminal defense, defendants are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Imagine swimming against that tide when your clients’ very lives and liberties are on the line?
Jerry Buting spoke about specifics from the trial, like what they called the “Magic Bullet.” Having found no DNA in Avery’s home that linked him to the crime, a spent bullet casing with the victim’s DNA was miraculously discovered in Avery’s garage weeks after investigators had thoroughly searched and emptied the area.
Then there was the victim’s car key that miraculously appeared in Avery’s home, weeks after the home had been searched by investigators — a key that was spotted in plain sight by local police visiting the Avery home against direct orders. These types of discoveries lead the attorneys to speculate that the police were again attempting to “Make a Murderer.”
The nation’s debate on the death penalty was another topic for the evening. Dean Strang confessed that he could not represent defendants in jurisdictions with the death penalty, knowing that if he is the second-best attorney in the room, his client will get the gas chamber.
Both attorneys acknowledged that even though prosecutors are sworn to seek justice, they are people too — people who make mistakes and who want to win the case; and sometimes they too can overlook their mandate and refuse to drop a case when it appears unjust. Jerry Buting and Dean Strang also touched on the fact that minorities and the poor are over-represented in our prison system.
Asked how they liked being so recognizable after the series, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting both remained humble. Strang noted that although there were probably many more articulate people to take up the cause and speak out against injustice, they just happened to be the ones who were handed the microphone because of the documentary. This is exactly what makes the show so powerful.
The poor and those charged with crimes are underdogs, and most of them never get a chance to share their stories. Yet, with Making a Murderer, they have finally been given a voice; and the microphone is now passed to us to keep this conversation about justice alive. The Netflix show is a cold, hard, sober look at the American justice system. And it ain’t pretty.
Whether or not you witnessed the DPAC presentation of A Conversation on Justice, with Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, on Friday night, you absolutely must find time to watch Making a Murderer. (Click here to watch Episode 1 for FREE on YouTube.) There is a thrill in every episode, even for non-lawyers. If you haven’t seen the series, immediately put it in your Netflix queue and find a way to share your thoughts in this national conversation. Let’s keep the conversation going.
SECOND OPINION: May 18th Raleigh, NC News & Observer preview by Anne Blythe: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/tv/article78309487.html. (Note: To read Triangle Arts and Entertainment’s online version of the May 18th Triangle Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2016/05/making-a-murderers-dean-strang-and-jerry-buting-will-have-a-conversation-on-justice-friday-at-dpac/.)
Making a Murderer’s Dean Strang & Jerry Buting in A CONVERSATION ON JUSTICE (Durham Performing Arts Center, May 20 at 123 Vivian St., Durham, NC 27701, in the American Tobacco District).
DPAC NEWS RELEASE: http://www.dpacnc.com/news/detail/making-a-murderers-dean-strang-jerry-buting-a-conversation-on-justice-coming-to-dpac-on-friday-may-20.
Making A Murderer (2015 Netflix series): https://www.netflix.com/title/80000770 (official website), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5189670/ (Internet Movie Database), https://www.facebook.com/makingamurderer/ (Facebook page), https://twitter.com/MakingAMurderer (Twitter page), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Making_a_Murderer (Wikipedia).
A Conversation on Justice (2016 tour): http://conversationonjustice.com/ (official website), https://www.facebook.com/StrangAndButing/ (Facebook page), and https://twitter.com/StrangAndButing (Twitter page).
[RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]
Pamela Vesper has been a Raleigh resident for more than 20 years. A local attorney for licensed professionals, when she’s not in court, Pam can be found watching or participating in local theater productions or enjoying the vibrant Raleigh music and craft beer scene. She also loves indie and foreign films and was an anchor on the local cable show, Movie Minutes. Pam has an opinion on just about everything; just ask her. Kurt Benrud is a graduate of Cary High School and N.C. State University, and he has taught English at both. He first became involved in local theater in 1980. He has served on the board of directors for both the Cary Players and the Cary Playwrights’ Forum. He is also a volunteer reader with Triangle Radio Reading Service. Click here to read their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.