Making a Murderer lawyer shares secrets with UQ students

Upon its release in December 2015, the Netflix true crime docuseries Making a Murderer enthralled millions of viewers worldwide.

Filmed over 10 years, the series followed Steven Avery, a Wisconsin, US man who was accused and ultimately convicted of murder shortly after his release from an 18-year prison sentence for a crime he did not commit.

More than 100 students from The University of Queensland’s TC Beirne School of Law had the rare opportunity to hear from one of the series’ most popular figures, Mr Avery’s former defence lawyer Dean Strang, at a student-led Q&A panel last week.

Mr Strang answered students’ burning questions about Making a Murderer, the Avery case and his own career, and shared his insights on the systemic flaws and challenges of the American criminal justice system.

An adjunct professor and law lecturer in Wisconsin, Mr Strang said he relished the chance to speak to and learn from law students all over the world.

“On the whole, I find that law students today are brighter, more qualified and better prepared than they were when I was a student, given the competition for graduate lawyers and higher admission standards,” Mr Strang said.

“Law students are a wonderful challenge in that, invariably, they will ask a question that makes one re-examine all of the assumptions that clutter our lives after 30 years of practice.”

When asked for his best piece of advice for contemporary law students, Mr Strang implored the audience to “hang on to your humanity”.

“In whatever area you’re practising, there is a lot of pressure to dehumanise our clients and to see them as cases or enemies,” he said.

“If you lose your humanity and your humility, there’s a real danger to yourself and to the society you serve.

”The danger to society is obvious; as lawyers, we have a certain degree of power, we handle people’s money and hold onto their liberty and futures.

“On a more personal level, I’m convinced that the high rate of burn-out in lawyers and the associated mental health issues are a product of no longer seeing our clients as people.

“I’ve never met anybody who is burned out on human beings.

“View yourself as someone who is involved in something intrinsically human – dealing with people and their tragedies, aspirations, successes and hopes – and remember that’s what law is all about.”

For those pursuing a career in criminal law, Mr Strang said students must be willing to clash with public opinion, citing Mr Avery’s case as an example.

“When I took on Steven Avery’s case, I knew his backstory,” he said.

“The anger directed at him before he was even arrested or charged was overwhelming. He was easily the most detested person in the state.

“That’s the kind of person you want to defend if you’re a defence lawyer. If you aren’t drawn to do that, it’s hard to be in this field with any sort of passion or enthusiasm.”

Mr Strang also advised students to be aware of the obstacles faced by many defendants.

“What you see here and in the US is a very different experience with racial and ethnic minorities and the poor, versus wealthier people or people of the dominant ethnic population,” he said.

“It’s a continuing struggle to come close to the idea of equal justice under law.

“I would counsel students to think about the pervasive effects of poverty and race on the operation of the justice system, and how these factors can increase the odds of a negative outcome.”

With their determination to seek justice for a client facing some of the same obstacles, Mr Strang and his colleague, Jerry Buting, stole the show during the first season of Making a Murderer.

Although Mr Avery’s 2007 trial resulted in his conviction and sentence of life without parole, Mr Strang said the series could help him – though it would be a challenge.

“I would say Mr Avery’s chances for a re-trial are slim but not non-existent,” he said.

“I think the initial episodes could have given him a sort of permanent momentum.

“However, that same notoriety may well result in some judicial resistance because the courts don’t want to look like they’re responding to popular culture or public opinion.

“It’s a complicated and contradictory mix.”

UQ’s Professor Heather Douglas said Mr Strang was an ideal role model for all law students. 

“Mr Strang is a figure in popular culture but he has dealt with real cases and real people in the criminal justice system,” Professor Douglas said.

“His approach and emphasis on humility and humanity is one we hope our students will follow.”

UQ was one of only three Australian universities Mr Strang visited during his whirlwind speaking tour of the country last week.

Following the student panel, he joined journalist Paul Barclay at the Brisbane Powerhouse for Making a Murderer: Dean Strang in conversation with Paul Barclay.The event was sponsored by the School of Law.   

Read a UQ student’s perspective on the student Q&A panel event here.

Media: Alysha Hilevuo, a.hilevuo@uq.edu.au, +61 7 334 69349, +61 (0) 428 884 097

Last updated:
13 October 2017