“We will not have justice for everyone until we have injustice for no one.”
Paramount Theatre, Denver
Like many people, I absorbed every episode of the Netflix docuseries Making a Murderer, which took a close, often unpleasant look at the American justice system—in this case, specifically Manitowoc County, Wisconsin. The story follows the case of Steven Avery, who served 18 years for a murder-rape he didn’t commit and who, two years later, finds himself arrested and charged for another murder. The did-he-or-didn’t tension is amplified by what appears to be a police setup, complete with evidence tampering, conflicts of interest, bungled searches, and press conferences filled with seemingly less than the truth. On top of this, Avery’s 17-year-old intellectually challenged nephew is charged as a co-conspirator, despite lack of due process, coerced confessions, and hard evidence to the contrary. I think every viewer exhaled a collective gasp when both were found guilty.
In light of the outrage following the show, Avery’s then-defense attorneys Dean Strang and Jerry Buting have taken to the road. Rather than responding in the press where there words are sure to be distorted and soundbites chosen out of context, the pair wanted to continue the conversation about justice that began with Making a Murderer. It’s a rare opportunity to attend and be part of an event like this, and one I wasn’t going to miss.
Before a half-filled Paramount Theatre in which a majority of the attendees appeared to be law students, Buting and Strang answered questions from moderator Frederic Bloom, some culled from the crowd in advance, others posed by the CU law professor himself. I wasn’t sure what to write about this show, what notes to take, yet over the course of two hours, I filled page after page in my notebook. Now, eschewing the cloak of misinformation that so often surrounds talks about the American justice system, I want to present some of these thoughts, ideas, and encouragements to you.
As might be expected, Bloom opened the discourse by asking for an update of some of the major players from the Steven Avery case. This, of course, was what everyone primarily came to hear, and the two lawyers gave a thorough recap of the careers of the police detectives, sergeants, and prosecutors they faced on the other side of the courtroom. Unfortunately, if you were of the opinion—as, I think, most viewers were—that the case was mishandled or, worse, intended to send an innocent man to prison, perhaps to quell the wrongful imprisonment lawsuit against the department, you were bound to be disappointed. No sanctions of any kind had been handed down; if anything, those players were in positions of even greater power now. (Sigh.)
Next, the two attorneys revealed how they move on after a crushing defeat, such as they suffered in the Avery case. When they look back, do they see things they could have—or wished they had—done differently? Even though they gave their absolute best to their client and this case, is this something that haunts them? Should they have pressed for a mistrial, as they would have been within their full rights to do so after day one of jury deliberation? What about moving the trial out of Manitowoc County, where the Averys were extremely well known?
“It’s hardest with a life sentence,” said Buting, speaking about the self-reflection. All you can do, he said, is “try to right the wrong.”
Turning philosophical, Strang then quoted Kierkegaard: “Life can only be understood looking backward, but it must be lived looking forward.”
The conversation then turned to Making a Murderer’s place as a cultural artifact, which Strang explained as due to the growing interest in true crime as entertainment, combined with the growingly obvious malfunction of our criminal justice system. This aspect was extremely poignant on this night, given the seemingly unending onslaught of police violence being caught on camera. In fact, the attorneys felt that linking Murderer with Black Lives Matter and other citizen movements helped the case of all parties; it’s hard to make much of an impression with a single case, so why not multiply the effects?
Next up was an in-depth discussion about race and justice, which, although not an issue in the Steven Avery case, certainly is in America today. Strang introduced the topic of racial fault lines, applied to the different ways Whites and Blacks view society: the former as race-neutral, the latter as race-loaded. (Kind of makes you think, doesn’t it?) He deemed all opposition to BLM “preposterous,” and labeled the treatment of Blacks in our criminal justice system as “palpable injustice.” “We will not have justice for everyone,” Strang proclaimed, “until we have injustice for no one.”
So what’s in store for Steven Avery? He’s got a new attorney, Kathleen Zellner of the Wisconsin Innocece Project, fighting for an appeal. Multiple petitions have been created and filed requesting state and federal intervention. (All of them were denied.)
The night was enlightening, but the subject matter still frustrating. How can we—concerned, yet untrained citizens—be able to hold local courts accountable while they—well-pedigreed, long-established defense attorneys—couldn’t? | Laura Hamlett