Two of the strongest personalities in Making a Murderer are Dean Strang and Jerome Buting, and it would be tough to argue otherwise. Strang and Buting are top-notch Wisconsin defense lawyers that murder defendant Steven Avery hired to represent him — initially, off of the modest compensation money ($240,000) he received from the state after being imprisoned in the mid-’80s for a crime he did not commit.
Throughout the show, we witness Avery’s extended family full of rage, sorrow, and — above all — limitless devotion to Steven’s (and his supposed accomplice, teenager Brendan Dassey’s) unpopular cause. This is evidenced mostly in their actions and fallen, tired faces — in pithy, hopeful sentiments repeated again and again over the course of the many years the documentarians Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi checked in with them. Strang and Buting strike us because they channel that passion into eloquent monologues rather than mantras, both in the courtroom and in private interviews. Strang — prone to becoming choking up and twisting his face in righteous fury — expresses the show’s implicit themes with such a poetic sensibility that it is hard to credit that it has not been scripted and memorized (of course, on the floor, it may well have been). His Shakespearean interjections are part of the reason the Making a Murderer series needs no third-person narrator, and why one rarely minds that the show deems it appropriate — with subject matter this vital — to tell us how to feel.
Of course, it’s a bit unfortunate that so much of the attention has been turned towards making the lawyers goofball memes and objects of lust. Strang, in particular, has been deified — a recent Guardian article cites the metaphysical similarities between him and the handsome, dapper, committed moral lawyer-father Sandy Cohen from The OC, and a handful of other fictional characters.
Some of this is fun and funny, and it’s hard not to love these guys for their committed work. One only hopes the Making a Murderer obsessives posting the memes have also done things like sign one of the petitions to get Steven Avery’s case looked at by a fresh, unbiased court, or reflected on the larger issues raised by the show, which are meant, by the filmmakers’ own admissions, to be aggressively impersonal.
The real good that has come from this, when it comes to Strang and Buting — who are both still practicing law— are on their way to getting more business. Much of it (we hope) will be from clients in similar positions to Steven Avery.
Buting’s website lists, among his areas of expertise, “defense of serious and complex criminal offenses” and “wrongful conviction.”
Strang’s blurb is more open ended: “When [doing a case right] means taking the longer, harder route, I do that with a client. Shortcuts usually serve a lawyer’s comfort, not a client’s cause. And cutting corners serves neither the client nor the lawyer.” He also lists a long bibliography of his essays about the workings of the criminal justice system — including 2009’s Becoming What We Pretend to Be: Signs of Values in the Casual Rhetoric of American Criminal Justice — and his 2013 book focusing on an “unfair” trial of Italian anarchists in 1917. (The book is currently sold out on Amazon.)
Hiring either of these accomplished individuals would be a boon for any defendant with the odds stacked high against them. Buting and Strang, in their own self-advertisement, are the type of lawyers to take on disenfranchised clients if they are passionate about the case: In the Avery case, they eventually worked for drastically reduced fees when Avery’s settlement money for false imprisonment exhausted.
It’s probably worth nothing that Buting and Strang were hardly celebrated for their work on the Avery case at the time of trial. In fact, the prosecution’s frequent attacks on their moral fabric — seen frequently in the press conference footage in Making a Murderer — and the mere fact that they were defending a heavily media-vilified criminal on his home turf made them a target of endless vitriol for long after the trial.
Of course, that more than comes with the territory. “If you really have the heart and the soul of a criminal defense lawyer,” Strang said in a Wisconsin newspaper in 2007, during the trial. “This is where you want to be and you feel like you got privileged because you’ve been chosen to do it. If we’re the least popular people in northeastern Wisconsin after our client, that’s where I belong.”
Buting and Strang certainly deserve some long-deferred respect for their committed work on the trial, and definitely more business. But while we should be thankful Making a Murderer draws attention to their talent, focusing too much on these two men in particular — who, incidentally, never suffered in their practice or had their lives derailed, despite dealing with hate-mail-bruised egos — ignores the show’s more illuminating message. That is: If you are poor and caught up in the judicial system in America, almost inevitably, someone is taking advantage of you.
Avery was unreasonably lucky to contract Strang and Buting’s services, and was only able to do so after going through a whole other grueling trial process in the early 2000s that took years. To make the lawyers the focus of our admiration gets away from the queasy, vaguely hopeless feeling this unremittingly powerful series means to leave you with. It somewhat ignores the excellent job it does with bringing us into the world of the Avery family, a difficult and deceptively complicated group made up of the type of people we rarely see treated so sympathetically and three-dimensionally in the media. So it seems sadly beside the point to romanticize the saviors, no matter how charismatic.
The Buting-Strang obsession is endemic of the many ways we obsess over the details of recent true crime shows’ particular situations — from a distanced, non-activist standpoint. In the case of Making a Murderer, we tend to defer, or lose sight of the larger, perhaps insurmountable issues the show raises about our national law enforcement, and the way we view their role.
Buting and Strang may be finding more of the world’s Steven Averys as a result of the show, but it is always important to remember that the true heroes of Making a Murderer are those who have to shoulder the tremendous weight of the system, and not those paid hundreds of thousands to do their best to stave it off, or work within it as an all-too-ineffectual check-and-balance.
Ultimately, this very good show — Netflix’s best piece of original programming to date — is hardly about its particular story. It is not designed to have you losing sleep about whether or not you believe Steven Avery is guilty or not, or whether Lieutenant Lenk was capable of planting a key on a crime scene. Demos and Riccardi’s epic narrative is a case study about the fact that things this wrong can happen, and are happening.
It’s the system, not necessarily people, who are either broken or infallible. As Strang points out on the show, we should not tremble with fury imagining that the Manitowoc police and the prosecutors were trying to frame an innocent man. It’s quite possible they were simply trying to make a guilty verdict stick — to sweep another case under the rug and keep step with a powerful system which pressures them, as cogs within it, to do so. There can be no unconscionable villains, or true messiahs, in a system that’s been so deeply flawed for centuries. Making a Murderer prompts us to consider these things as par for the course — to consider the palette all gray, rather than black and white.
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