Minnesota 'Making a Murderer' lawyer draws big crowds

By Mike Mosedale

The Daily Record Newswire

ST. PAUL, MN - When Dean Strang turned up at the Minnesota State Capitol for an informal discussion about criminal justice system on Wednesday afternoon, one thing became apparent instantly: Like a lot of other people around the country, plenty of legislators have been binge-watching "Making a Murderer," the addictive documentary series from Netflix.

Much like the general public, some of those lawmakers emerged from their 10 hours in front of the tube with some troubling questions about the criminal justice system - and more than a little star struck by Strang, the bespectacled and unassuming criminal defense attorney from Madison, Wisconsin.

Strang came to the Capitol at the invitation of Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-St. Paul Park, who explained that he, too, was enthralled by "Making a Murderer."

After learning that Strang's engagement at a Minneapolis tap room was already sold out, Schoen said he wanted to give the public and his fellow lawmakers a chance to hear Strang in a person.

But Schoen, a police officer, also said he was "concerned" by much of what he saw in the documentary, which strongly suggests that key evidence used to convict Strang's client, Steven Avery, was planted by members of the Manitowoc Sheriff's Department.

If anyone in attendance expected Strang to use the bully pulpit to proclaim his client's innocence or lay into Ken Kratz, the former Calumet County prosecutor who put Avery behind bars for life, they walked away disappointed.

For those with a taste for something other than such red meat, Strang delivered, dovetailing his measured comments about the case into ruminations about the shortcomings of the criminal justice system.

In "Making a Murderer," Strang never asserted his client's innocence. The "armchair sleuths" who focus on the question of guilt, he said, are missing the bigger point "about the system and the reliability of the outcomes."

"If I had a broader theme to offer, it's that we ought to have more humility in our law-enforcement institutions," he added.

Still, Rep. Sheldon Johnson, DFL-St. Paul, could not resist asking Strang to address complaints that "Making a Murderer" deliberately excluded evidence that was favorable to the prosecution.

Strang responded that the documentary makers incorporated the strongest parts of the state's case and devoted a full three hours to the Avery trial alone.

"It got the same amount of time 'Dr. Zhivago' got to cover the entire Russian Revolution," Strang said. "Even with that generous amount of time, you're still talking about a trial with over 200 hours of evidence over six-plus weeks. And I don't think anyone is going to binge watch a 220-hour film. To me, it's kind of a dead end conversation to talk about what got left in and what got left out."

Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River, wanted Strang's observations about the seemingly incompetent court-appointed lawyer who represented Brendon Dassey - Avery's nephew and co-defendant. Like many viewers, Zerwas noted the contrast in the quality of the lawyering Dassey got with the highly-praised work of Strang and attorney Jerry Buting on Avery's trial.

"What does that say about our criminal justice system?" Zerwas asked.

"It says a lot, and most of what it says isn't very good," responded Strang. In particular, he lamented the chronic underfunding of public defense "which is widely viewed as using tax dollars to make laywers rich and give bad guys a lawyer."

At any given time, Strang said, he's got about 30 open cases on his plate, while public defenders in Wisconsin typically have between 150 and 200 open cases. "They have the same 24 hours in a day that I do," he said.

And since 90 percent of criminal defendants can't afford a lawyer, he said, underfunding public defense only serves to corrode public confidence in the system.

Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, wanted to know if Strang had any policy recommendations for the Legislature.

"It's a tricky area with the separation of powers," Strang responded. But he said lawmakers might want to "start a conversation" about the standards of review in the courts, saying "the system is rigged to ratify" the decisions of lower courts.

"You might want be in a position to start prodding the executive branch about reviving clemency," he added. "Executive clemency has died on the vine in this country."

Five hours after his appearance at the Capitol, Strang gave a second talk, this time in front of a pumped up and sold out crowd at Sisyphus Brewing in Minneapolis, with local attorneys Ron Rosenbaum and Joe Friedberg in charge of the questions.

Unsurprisingly, the focus was a little less wonky and a lot more freewheeling.

Rosenbaum wanted to know what Strang made of his sudden, Netflix-induced notoriety. "You're a trial lawyer in Wisconsin. Now all of the sudden you're Mick Jagger," Rosenbaum noted

While Strang resisted the Jagger comparison he said he was flabbergasted to find himself in the spotlight 8½ years after the trial in question. His said his wife has been amused by the notion anyone would regard him as a sex symbol. "It's a little deflating that she thinks it's so funny that someone might think I'm attractive," he added wryly.

"Did you ever think about the fact that if you had won, it wouldn't be this big of a story?" asked Friedberg.

Strang said he hadn't given that much consideration but, following the release of "Making a Murderer," one of his legal mentors quipped, "When I started out, you had to win a case to get any attention."

Since the release of "Making a Murderer" in December, Strang said he's received over 3,900 emails from total strangers. About half came from people "who wanted to cheer me up and say something nice." Most of the rest come from armchair sleuths, he said, offering their suggestions for how Avery might win a new trial.

Has it produced any useful leads?

Strang said he doesn't know but is forwarding the communications to Avery's new legal team, which is being headed by the well-known Chicago-area lawyer Kathleen Zellner.

But all three attorneys agreed that Avery faces a big challenge in getting a court to grant a new trial. Even if new evidence is uncovered, they noted, Avery will have to establish that evidence would reasonably lead to an acquittal - a tough standard to meet but likely his only hope.

In another point of consensus, the attorneys each said the presumption of innocence has largely devolved into a fiction.

"The practical reality is there's a presumption of guilt," said Strang.

At the end of the evening, Rosenbaum announced that the ticket sales had raised $1,700. The money is being donated to the Wisconsin Innocence Project.

Published: Fri, Feb 05, 2016

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