'Making a Murderer'

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Dean Strang (left) and Jerry Buting – two of the defense attorneys who appeared in the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer” – will speak about the American criminal justice system on March 19 in Royal Oak and March 20 in Grand Rapids.

Photo courtesy of the Royal Oak Music Theatre

Documentary’s attorneys to make stops in Royal Oak, Grand Rapids

By Kurt Anthony Krug
Legal News

Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, former defense attorneys of convicted murderer Steven Avery – the subject of the controversial Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer,” will come to Michigan next month for two appearances.

Strang and Buting will appear at the Royal Oak Music Theatre on Saturday, March 19 at 8 p.m. Tickets for this event cost $55. They will also appear at the DeVos Performance Hall in Grand Rapids on Sunday, March 20 at 7 p.m. Tickets prices for that event are between $29.50 and $59.50. Their two speaking engagements are described as a moderated discussion regarding the operation of the American criminal justice system – and its flaws – and the broader implications of the Avery case.

“Murderer” – a 10-part docu-series written, produced, and directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos – ignited a powderkeg of controversy when it debuted December 18, 2015. It chronicles the case of Avery, 53, of Manitowoc County, Wisc. who had a prior criminal history. Avery spent 18 years in prison for the sexual assault, attempted first-degree murder, and false imprisonment of a woman named Penny Ann Beerntsen in 1985 – crimes that he did not commit. He was later exonerated with the aid of the Wisconsin Innocence Project once DNA evidence was matched to another man named Gregory Allen, who was already serving a 60-year prison sentence for sexual assault.

Avery was released from prison on September 11, 2003. Upon release, Avery filed a $36 million civil lawsuit against Manitowoc County. On November 1, 2005, the Wisconsin state legislature passed the Avery Bill, which aimed to prevent wrongful convictions. In mid-December 2005, Avery was rewarded a settlement of $400,000 from Manitowoc County.

It was on October 31, 2005 that freelance photographer Teresa Halbach was supposed to meet Avery at his home, which is on the grounds of Avery’s Auto Salvage – his family business – to take a picture of a minivan for a sales ad in Auto Trader Magazine. Halbach went missing that same day.

On November 11, 2005, Halbach’s car – a Toyota RAV4 – and her charred bone fragments were found on Avery’s property. Avery was charged with her murder. However, he stated that authorities were trying to railroad him by charging him with her murder to make it harder for him to win his civil suit against Manitowoc County in the earlier murder case. In order to avoid any conflicts of interest, authorities from neighboring Calumet County took the lead in Halbach’s murder investigation.

On March 2, 2006, Brendan Dassey – Avery’s nephew who was age 16 at the time – was charged with first-degree murder, sexual assault, and mutilation of a corpse. He was found guilty of these crimes on April 25, 2007 and sentenced to life in prison on August 8, 2007.

Avery’s trial began on February 12, 2007. He used his settlement money to hire Strang and Buting. On March 18, 2007, Avery was found guilty of first degree murder and possession of a firearm. He was found not guilty of mutilation of a corpse. Avery was sentenced to life in prison on June 1, 2007. Despite his conviction, Avery maintains his innocence in Halbach’s murder.

His request for a new trial was denied on January 25, 2010. In 2011, both the Wisconsin Court of Appeals and the Wisconsin Supreme Court denied Avery a new trial. Additionally, in 2012, the Wisconsin Innocence Project wouldn’t take his case as it did with him before. 

It took the filmmakers almost 10 years to complete “Murderer,” which received equal parts praise for its comprehensive nature and equal parts criticism for not presenting all the facts and for being one-sided. Steve Lehto, a Michigan-based attorney and true crime author, falls into the latter category.

“I keep thinking I might write a piece on one particular issue. And I think it is indicative of what is wrong with the whole series. They show Avery’s dad (Allan Avery) saying, ‘The cops told Steven: ‘We don’t care if you are guilty. We’re going to convict you anyway.’’ Steven is not present when he said that. And (the filmmakers) never ask Steven if a cop really said that to him. Obviously, if a cop had said it, that would be huge. But the best evidence of that is not the father repeating what he was told by his son. Why didn’t they even bother to ask (Steven) on camera about it?” explained Lehto, author of “American Murder Houses: A Coast-to-Coast Tour of the Most Notorious Houses of Homicide.”

Lehto postulated three reasons why. The first is the police never said that to Avery. The second is the filmmakers doubted it. The third is “sloppy filmmaking.”

“The filmmakers put all kinds of stuff on screen and I think many viewers think that, somehow, what they are seeing has been vetted, checked, verified, or some such,” said Lehto. “When, in reality, it appears that nothing was done to double-check anything. They simply ask one side what their story is and they put that in the (documentary).”

Nonetheless, the popularity of “Murderer” led to more than 128,000 viewers petitioning President Barack Obama to pardon Avery and Dassey on December 20, 2015 – two days after the TV program debuted. A spokesperson for the White House stated that these convictions were made in a state court and not a federal court; therefore, Obama has no authority to pardon Avery and Dassey. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker stated he would not pardon either man.

“Murderer” has generated plenty of national media attention from People Magazine, NBC Nightly News, CBS Evening News, Time Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide, Rolling Stone, USA Today, US Magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times, et al.

“The documentary has shown the public for the first time – through the actual testimony of witnesses and statements of participants – how much reasonable doubt there was in Steven Avery’s case,” Buting stated in the January 25 issue of People, where Avery was the cover story. “Many of the flaws in our system are so deeply entrenched that some law enforcement agents and prosecutors no longer fear any pushback from the public when things like this happen. They rely on mock outrage that anyone could even suggest corruption and misconduct like this can occur, and then try to intimidate the defense from showing the evidence for what it is.”

As of January 9, Avery is now being represented by Kathleen Zellner, a renowned attorney from Chicago, and Tricia Bushnell, legal director of the Midwest Innocence Project.
Dr. George Popovich, who teaches film at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, offered his perspective on why TV series such as “Murderer,” HBO’s “The Jinx,” and FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” have never been more popular. He stated that the success of these shows are “residue” from the financial crisis of 2007-08.

“The economy has certainly not bounced back. Real estate appreciation is slow or non-existent in many states. Areas of no-growth and urban blight scar the country,” explained Popovich.  “(‘Murderer’) is about a person being framed – controlled, manipulated, deceived – by a higher power. Deceit and manipulation is what Wall Street and the American banking system perpetrated on the American public in 2009. ‘Murderer’ depicts a corrupt system controlled by corrupt officials, much like the general perception of what happened in America during the Great Recession… The pain and damage of this financial debacle remains and lingers like a bad dream in the American consciousness and it is not surprising that it manifests itself in popular television shows.”

Tickets for the Royal Oak event are available by calling (248) 399-2980 or by going to www.royaloakmusictheatre.com or www.axs.com. Tickets for the Grand Rapids events are available at the DeVos and Van Andel Arena box offices or by calling (800) 745-3000.

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