Lawyer Dean Strang of Netflix's Making a Murderer on his heartthrob status, the true crime genre, and Steven Avery.

Making a Murderer’s Dean Strang on Being a Heartthrob: “Millennials Come Up to Me on the Street”

Making a Murderer’s Dean Strang on Being a Heartthrob: “Millennials Come Up to Me on the Street”

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Jan. 8 2016 8:01 AM

Making a Murderer’s Dean Strang on Being a Heartthrob: “Millennials Come Up to Me on the Street”

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"My wife can get a little feisty about it. Mostly she thinks it’s utterly ridiculous."

Netflix

Since Making a Murderer—Netflix’s true crime series about the case of Steven Avery, a man who spent 18 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, only to be charged with murder two years after his release—debuted in December, an unlikely breakout star has emerged: defense attorney Dean Strang. Elle.com offered a post headlined “Deconstructing Your Sexual Attraction to Making a Murderer’s Dean Strang in 13 Steps.” An entire Tumblr devoted to dissecting Strang’s fashion sense (“StrangCore”) materialized. A sea of thinkpieces praised his moral uprightness and compassion. Slate spoke to Strang about Making a Murderer, his newfound sex symbol status, and his relationship with Avery. This interview has been edited and condensed.

How has your life changed since Making a Murderer was released?

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I anticipated some media interest and was girded for that. I did not anticipate that I would, in two weeks, receive 1,000 emails from strangers around the world.

As I’m sure you know by now, Making a Murderer has made you a heartthrob. For instance, have you seen that fans of yours created the hashtag #Strangers?

Hashtag denotes Twitter, I think. I’m not on any social media. I’m just not on ’em. I hear lots of stuff because people will tease me by sending me a link, but that’s just a whole world of mediated social experience, as the term social media implies. That’s not what I do. When I’m feeling social, I do it immediately, directly, I sit down with somebody directly and I talk to them, across a table, I get myself a couple of dark hot chocolates and I listen to somebody, I talk to them, or I get a beer or something. So I’m not going to change. But I’m told there’s a lot going on in social media that’s frivolous or weird or interesting—probably all of that.

There’s also a blog that celebrates your style. It’s called “StrangCore.”

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[Laughs] Lack of style?

Are you familiar with the term normcore? It means dressing so normally that you’re actually fashionable.

OK. I’m going to take your word for it.

There have been some celebrity comparisons, too. People are saying you look like Kyle Chandler, Stephen Colbert …

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Has anyone told Stephen Colbert that?

I’m not sure. I definitely think there’s a resemblance. Have you gotten that in person?

No. When I was younger, when I was in college and shortly after, people used to say, “God, you look a little like Dustin Hoffman.” He’d probably be insulted if you said that.

You’ve said that your wife has been pretty surprised by the reaction.

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Right. Surprised would be one word. It’s mostly that she can’t stop laughing about it. She’s about 5-foot-2 and 105 pounds dripping wet or something, but you don’t want to mess with her, so when she’s not laughing, she’s getting a little feisty about it. Mostly she thinks it’s utterly ridiculous.

How did you get involved with Steven Avery’s case?

The lawyers who represented him on the 1983 action gave Steven my name and Jerry Buting’s. It was probably after he was charged with murder. Jerry and I never had practiced together, but we’d been friends for a long time, and I’ve admired him—I think he’s a terrific lawyer—for even longer than I’d been friends with him. Really I decided it would be neat just to do the case with Jerry. It made sense. He’s got a particular interest in and competency in scientific and forensic evidence, so I thought we would complement each other well. Then more generally, both of us, if you’re a committed criminal defense lawyer, a hard case with a compelling backstory like this is exactly where you want to be.

At that point, were you familiar with the case?

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I had been part of the firm that Steve Glynn and Rob Henak were members of in the mid-’90s when Steven’s first conviction was in that office. I wasn’t directly involved in it, but I was in that law firm of seven lawyers in the mid-’90s when Steve and Rob were doing post-conviction and DNA testing on Steven Avery’s 1985 conviction. The Innocence Project took it over from there. And you couldn’t live in Wisconsin and pay attention and not be aware of Steven Avery, even apart from my work connection.

When you became officially involved, the documentary was already in the works. Were you wary at all of being part of it?

Steven wanted us to cooperate with the filmmakers. Jerry and I initially both were quite wary of that. Lawyers are small-C conservative creatures.* We’re about privilege, we’re worried about work product, we’re worried about our own primacy in the process, honestly. I think just instinctively, we’re not thrilled about people looking over our shoulders with cameras, especially where we don’t know how the story’s going to end, even the story in real life, let alone the story the filmmakers might choose to tell. So we were very wary about it.

But Steven wanted us to consider doing it. So we met with the filmmakers. We took it slowly. What became clear quickly was that these two women [Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos] were really bright, they were thoughtful, they wanted to use Steven and then later Brendan’s stories to ask bigger questions about the criminal justice system generally. That was appealing, especially to me. They were also honest with us. So over time, we gradually grew to trust them.

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There was also the specific thing that one of the two filmmakers [Ricciardi] is a lawyer. She’s a lawyer by training, she has worked as a lawyer. So she got the privilege issues and the client relationship issue. That made it a lot easier at the very concrete level. And I think at the most concrete level, they weren’t intrusive. Mostly things worked with natural light. It was one small, shoulder-held camera. When we didn’t want them around, they said, “Fine, let us know when you can have us around.”

How did you decide to become a criminal defense lawyer?

That was really a series of accidents, serendipitous accidents, as much of my life has been and maybe much of many people’s lives are. When I went to law school—which I did only because I rightly decided that my passion of editorial cartooning would not turn out to be a good 40- or 50-year career choice.

So I went to law school and when I went I had no intention of ever setting foot in a courtroom in any context. Don’t particularly like open conflict, don’t especially like being the focus of attention.

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I kind of fell into getting job at the United States Attorney’s Office as a federal prosecutor. That was, again, just serendipity. It didn’t last long. I was the world’s worst federal prosecutor ever, just the world’s worst. So I only lasted 11 months in the U.S. Attorney’s Office and just had to get out. But the experience was, “Man, I really do like criminal law, I’m just on the wrong side for me, personally.” With my personality, I belong on the other side. I love the shoes, but I have them on the wrong feet, if that makes any sense. So then I sort of tumbled into, again by happy accident, one of the two best criminal defense firms in Wisconsin at the time. That was in 1988, and I’ve been doing criminal defense ever since.

Why was prosecution the wrong side for you?

I like being the underdog. I don’t like bullies. And often the government seems to be in the bully role or can bully people even if a prosecutor doesn’t mean to exercise his or her power that way. The sovereign powers are so enormous, and it’s so lopsidedly in favor of the government no matter the good faith of the prosecutor.

For whatever reason, I was drawn to the underdogs on the other side, the people who were being accused of crime. I can’t articulate it really much better than that, it’s probably something buried deep inside me that a psychotherapist could figure out but that I can’t.

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Many people have said that Making a Murderer has opened their eyes to the limits of our criminal justice system.

The specifics of our criminal justice system malfunctioning in ways large and small are different in every case. You don’t see the exact details of Steven Avery’s case replicated all the time, of course, but many of the failings that you see on display in Brendan Dassey’s case are replicated in very similar detail. Teenagers, or children, being drawn in and interviewed as adults, being interviewed in psychologically sophisticated and manipulative ways by the police and being unable to hold their own or function adequately under that pressure. People with developmental delays disproportionately find themselves in the criminal justice system. Failures of defense counsel are common.

The specifics may be very dissimilar in other cases or have some broad similarities but the small and large failings of our criminal justice system that this film depicts are pervasive and common and they could have occurred in any county in any state in the country. At the broadest level, there are obvious issues of class, how underclasses are treated in our courts, that are apparent in this [show]. That’s a universal issue for American criminal justice: poverty. Once you start talking about class and poverty, then you’re cheek by jowl with race or recent immigrant arrival or ethnicity.

When did you first get to see the series?

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I think my wife and I started watching it maybe three days after it came out. I was very curious to see it, obviously interested because it was a case in which I was involved up to my forehead, but at another level, it’s a case I lost, it’s a significant professional failure for me, it’s a case in which the price to my client of my losing this case was life in prison without parole, and it was eight-and-a-half years ago. There was a part of me that was not eager to relive that moment by moment. And I never enjoy looking at myself in a picture or in a video. It’s sort of, “Who is that fat, old guy? That can’t be me! I thought I was better-looking than that.” So I don’t enjoy that. Never taken a selfie, probably never will, don’t want to look at myself.

Aside from not enjoying seeing yourself onscreen, what did you think?

I don’t know anything about filmmaking, but I was impressed with what the filmmakers and I suppose Netflix accomplished on what I assume was a shoestring budget. I also was sort of taken with the cinematic device of having the narrative carried entirely by footage in the film, by subjects in the film; there’s no narrator’s voice in this documentary. Even the title cards or the superscript that comes across the screen really is just dates, bare facts to orient the viewer.

I appreciated very much the filmmakers’ effort to raise broader questions, to grab you with these compelling small stories of two men and their experience in their respective cases but then to use that experience to ask broader systemic questions.

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Have you spoken to Jerry Buting about it?

Jerry and his family are on vacation out of the country right now but he’s been spoiling their vacation by dealing with hundreds of emails; he and I have Skyped or FaceTimed or whatever you call it. Jerry and I specifically are talking about what we can do next, how might this help Steven Avery, and how do we organize this mass of potential leads and new ideas that we’re getting? The film has harnessed thousands of people who have thoughts, ideas, they may know something, they may have areas of scientific expertise, and we’re hearing from people so there’s just a mass of potential good ideas or leads to follow.

This week the filmmakers went on The Today Show to discuss a juror who contacted them saying he or she didn’t believe Steven was guilty.

I haven’t spoken to the juror and I don’t think it’s fair to Steven and maybe not to the juror for me to comment specifically on that new piece of information. Let’s talk generally about it. If I were to try to try to encapsulate American case law on this, almost anything goes within the jury room. The internal deliberations or functioning of the jury is almost beyond inquiry by the courts. The jury really almost could have a tag-team wrestling match or a donnybrook as long as it’s behind the door to the jury room, as long as its internal to the jury room. External influence on the jury or external intrusions to the jury room are very different.

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Just to cast this in stark relief, jurors could be yelling at each other, even physically threatening one another, and courts almost always will do nothing about that, indeed, we’re not even going to hear about it. Jurors can’t testify to us about that kind of stuff. But if a dictionary comes into the jury room from the outside and jurors start looking up words and definitions of legal terms in Webster’s dictionary, that can be a basis for setting aside a verdict because there was an external influence on the jury.

In sum, it’s very difficult later to get a jury verdict set aside because someone felt menaced by other jurors, someone, you know, had second thoughts about the verdict they returned.

There have also been reports in the media about information that was left out of the documentary.

This trial went six weeks, five days a week, full days. If you do the math, we’re talking about roughly 240 hours of evidence in this trial, just the Avery trial. That’s not including the pretrial stuff, that’s not including post-trial. If you made a movie of one trial and that movie ran 240 hours, it probably would be a violation of the Geneva Convention to make somebody watch that. So this film to my mind devoted a pretty lavish three, four hours to the Avery trial itself, another hour to the Dassey trial.

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I thought the film was fair about including the best, the strongest of the prosecution evidence, the strongest of the prosecution arguments. …  And I think also that it includes the strongest evidence from the defense and the strongest points the defense made.

Have you been getting recognized on the street?

Yes, on the street or out and about. More often by twentysomethings, by millennials. Occasionally by people in other age groups as well, but it’s been noticeable how frequently it’s people in their 20s, early 30s who either recognize me or will come up and say something. I think [millennials] get such an unfair rap or label of being apathetic or disinterested or self-absorbed.

Before you were involved with Netflix, did you use Netflix?

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I used to have Netflix back when you’d get the little DVDs in the mail in that envelope. And then I quit. We resubscribed maybe six months ago because we wanted to watch House of Cards.

People have also discussed Making a Murderer in the context of other true crime series, especially Serial and The Jinx.

I know what Serial is, but I’ve never listened to the podcast. I do think that whatever the moment is with interest in outcomes and the reliability of outcomes in court, I think it’s connected very much to two trends or two facets of American life. One is over the last 15 or 20 years, people becoming aware of DNA testing and its use in courtrooms. That and shows like CSI fostering an illusion that courtrooms are places where scientific certainty often can be attained, that it’s the norm to be able to come to scientific certainty in a courtroom. And it’s not, of course. Courtrooms usually are not places where we can come to anything like scientific certainty, where we’re dealing with much more uncertainty even after we’ve heard everything.

Another aspect of public awareness of DNA testing over the last 20 years or so is that people are now more open to accepting the fact that there are mistaken convictions that occur in our courts in spite of everyone’s best efforts.

Do you have a sense of what your next steps might be?

Well, we don’t know at this point if we have anything that in the end will get Steven Avery a new trial. What I can say is that his realistic hope for a new trial lies in the category of newly discovered evidence, that you might divide into two subcategories. One might be new factual evidence—someone who’s been carrying a secret for 10 years, someone who saw something, someone who heard something, a new alibi. Or, second, it might be in a subcategory that you could call scientific advance: new testing techniques that might be available or old testing techniques that might be now more economical or feasible for the defense to try to run if we seek retesting.

The balance is every day Steven Avery wakes up in a maximum-security prison. If he didn’t murder Teresa Halbach, then none of those mornings in prison should happen.

*Correction, Jan. 8, 2016: This post originally misquoted Strang as saying “small-fee conservative.” He said “small-C conservative.”