Police coverups, wrongful convictions, coercion, a dodgy prosecutor, and two defense lawyers the likes of which haven't been seen since To Kill a Mockingbird. Making a Murderer—the ten-hour Netflix series following the trial of Steven Avery over the murder of Teresa Halbach—had it all, but it was Avery's lawyers, Jerry Buting and Dean Strang, who became the real stars of the show.
Now the pair have embarked on an international tour to continue thrashing out the rights and wrongs of the criminal justice system. I caught up with them ahead of their London appearance to chat justice and newfound fame.
VICE: Why are you going on tour?
Jerry Buting: Making a Murderer raises a lot of serious questions about justice, fairness, and process, and we thought it was worth discussing [those] in depth. But a lot of the media interviews at the time were very short and didn't really go beyond the show. We thought it'd be nice to do a forum where people could get together and ask us questions, and that grew into a talk in Milwaukee. Then other cities contacted us, and then people from all over Europe were calling us to get us to come over and do the same thing.
There are clearly differences between the criminal justice system in the US and elsewhere. Does that get in the way of the conversation, or is it about showing how the issues are the same everywhere?
Dean Strang: Yeah, that's exactly the point. Some of the things are specific to America in the details, but the phenomenon of tunnel vision on the part of police officers or core systems of defense counsel, false confessions—these things are universal. The similarities really are much greater than the dissimilarities.
"Admitting mistakes would be an act of both honesty and humility that would enhance the public impression of courts, not diminish it."—Dean Strang
Brendan Dassey has had his conviction overturned—how much of that do you think was helped by the show?
Buting: There's no real way to know. It was a decision made by a federal judge, and they try to rule on the law and not on public opinion. But it is sort of sad that it takes a couple of filmmakers to shine a light on what goes on in some courthouses that people otherwise wouldn't know or care about.
Have you been shocked at the popularity of the series and how it has thrust both of you into the spotlight?
Strang: Shock only slightly overstates it; greatly surprised would not overstate it. It's hard to know what great shows are going to catch the public attention, and I think both Jerry and I were surprised at how interest spread as quickly and pervasively as it did—especially interest in what lawyers might have to say.
There was a long gap between filming and the documentary being aired. Was it strange for you to relive it after all these years?
Buting: It was, although I did see it right before it came out, and we both went and spoke to Steven. It was hard to relive those moments, particularly the verdict. Seeing the tears welling up in Steven's eyes—that was very difficult. Not that we'd completely put it aside or forgotten, but after all these years, to watch it again was difficult.
Your determination to find the truth in an honest way made you the heroes of the show. What made you want to be lawyers in the first place?
You know, I've always wanted to champion the underdog. When I first started my legal career, I wanted to be a public defender, knowing that those were the people who were least able to stand up for themselves against the government. They don't always have the resources or education or ability to express themselves. I always felt it was my calling, my vocation.
Often lawyers are painted as evil caricatures in more of the Ken Kratz model. Do you think you've changed that?
I grew up when the criminal defense attorney was an honorable position and career. But in more recent years, it's been portrayed by Hollywood and on television in a negative and cynical way, with dishonest, sleazy lawyers trying to get away with something. I really didn't expect that a consequence of this show would be that people would be inspired to look into this as a career choice. I've had so many people contact me, and that's really very gratifying.
Strang: There are literally tens of thousands of criminal defense lawyers and other lawyers in this country alone who do, every day, the types of things you saw us doing. I don't think either one of us is exceptional, let alone unique, in what we're doing.
What needs to be done to restore public faith in the system?
There has to be more honesty about the frequency with which unreliable outcomes occur in our courts. I think a system that pretends to have near perfect accuracy and reliability is not one that will win the public trust—there are DNA exonerations piled up now by the hundreds. I think the public is especially distrustful of assertions by courts and lawyers that everything's fine, and there's nothing to see here. I really do think that admitting mistakes would be an act of both honesty and humility that would enhance the public impression of courts, not diminish it.
Dean Strang and Jerry Buting bring a Conversation on Justice to London's Palladium on October 23. For more UK dates, see here