‘Making a Murderer’ lawyer discusses ethics, social issues

Dean Strang, co-counsel to the Netflix Series "Making of a Murderer," speaks during an interview with reporters following his guest lecture on Monday at the Texas Tech School of Law.

Dean Strang, a Wisconsin lawyer best known for his appearance in Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” series, guest lectured at noon Monday in the Texas Tech School of Law.

“Making a Murderer” is a Netflix documentary about Steven Avery, who was convicted of rape and attempted murder in 1985 and exonerated in 2003, according to a Netflix news release.

In 2005, Avery was charged with murder, according to the release, and the show follows the subsequent criminal case, including possible police misconduct and evidence tampering. Strang served as co-counsel on Avery’s defense team.

Strang accepted the School of Law’s invitation to speak almost immediately, and he said he enjoys having a real opportunity to engage with students and Millennials.

“People who come and talk with me really are looking for engagement in broader issues and justice,” he said, “and I want to do my part of that conversation.”

Students, faculty and staff alike watched the documentary after its premiere in December, leading to a panel discussion of the show in the spring, Brie Sherwin, associate professor of law, said.

Dean Darby Dickerson reached out to Strang after the panel, Sherwin said, and discussions about Monday’s guest lecture began in February.

“We realized that this ‘Making a Murderer’ series would be the perfect basis from which to teach legal ethics and professionalism, as well as forming a good foundation for legal research and writing exercises,” Sherwin said.

During the lecture, Strang said more than 80 percent of people are too poor to hire a lawyer, and many cases are filed against impoverished individuals.

Because of funding shortages, societal issues and other factors, lawyers have an obligation to serve people in their communities, he said.

While it can be easy for people to stop fighting for justice, Strang said it is the people with little already who will pay with everything if no one fights for them.

“If we give up on the project of justice, then there is nothing but injustice,” he said.

Strang has seen immense strength in clients and victims, and he said lawyers should not view themselves as just legal advisers but rather as servants to those in need.

Strang said being a servant keeps lawyers fresh and hopeful about what a single person can accomplish, which is important for law students to remember.

“You can find the humanity in your clients, no matter who your clients are. You really can,” Strang said. “I find clients actually often very restorative, and they often move me and inspire me in ways that I don’t expect.”

Although the creators of “Making a Murderer” were given more access to the defense’s side, Strang said, as a member of the defense team, he thought the show was well balanced.

Decisions to cut certain parts of the five-week long trial out were reasonable, he said, and the documentary gave screen time to all points the prosecution and defense said were significant during the trial.

The documentary shows flaws in the police’s case, and Strang said he understands why some investigators were tempted to augment evidence.

When someone is invested in a case and thinks he knows who committed a crime, it is human nature to want to do whatever one can to ensure the person is found guilty, Strang said.

“I really have no reason to think police corruption is a bigger problem today than it was five years ago or any time in the past,” he said. “In fact, my strong supposition is that corruption is less a problem than 50 years ago or 100 years ago.”

Technologies like cellphones have made issues like police brutality more visible, Strang said, and the nation has to find ways to solve problems that are inevitable with a well-armed civilian population.

Just as “Making a Murderer” sparked national conversation, people must find ways to have spirited, civil and effective discussions, Strang said.

“I personally think that this sort of raucous, messy national dialogue we’re having about the role of police in communities fundamentally is healthy,” he said. “I think the Black Lives Matter movement is fundamentally a very healthy phenomenon. I think people rising to the defense of the police fundamentally is healthy.”

While Strang does not know what exactly makes the Avery case so intriguing, he said Millennials are OK with unclear conclusions to programs.

“I have a hunch that maybe it’s the untidiness of the ending, the lack of resolution,” he said. “Younger people especially have a greater willingness to accept shades of gray and uncertainty.”

When students are given a storyline to which they can become attached in class, Sherwin said, they are more interested in the material.

When Sherwin and other professors teach using “Making a Murderer,” it is more stimulating and engaging for the educators as well, she said.

“What I’ve noticed with my students over the past couple of years, particularly with the Millennial generation, is they are very interested in social justice issues,” Sherwin said.

Sherwin’s goal is to get her students to become passionate about something during their first year of law school, she said, and “Making a Murderer” creates a springboard for conversation to find what drives them.

Students reacted well to Strang’s lecture and enjoyed class discussions about the Netflix series, Sherwin said.

Strang is humble and genuine, she said, and he sets a positive example for the future lawyers he spoke to Monday.

“He is that person you see in the ‘Making a Murderer’ documentary,” Sherwin said. “He is very kind and sincere. We need more lawyers like him, we really do.”

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