America loves its conspiracy theories – and there seems to be no shortage of those (alien abductions, chupacabra, government-engineered Zika virus) – but perhaps the most-discussed water-cooler chatter these days involves the very strange ten-part Netflix documentary Making a Murderer, about Steven Avery, the Manitowoc County man and auto-salvage worker who served 18 years in prison before being exonerated for sexual assault and attempted murder, only to be later convicted of the murder of Teresa Halbach in 2007.
The series, which was filmed over the course of ten years, took us on a roller-coaster ride of emotions, turning binge-watchers into champions for his release, including a 500,000-signature petition for Avery's release making its way to the White House. (President Barack Obama replied that a pardon would have to come from state authorities.)
Haters gonna hate, and there are strong opinions on both sides of the fence, ranging from declarations of guilty (he killed the cat) to innocence (low I.Q.; victim of corruption), though most find themselves in the middle, with no shortage of unanswered questions.
A good television show will light up chat boards after airing, and then settle down. The story of Steven Avery has launched so much more interest, including law school analyses, a subreddit thread with almost 65,000 readers and, now, a lecture tour by the two attorneys who defended Avery
on the original sexual assault and attempted murder charges: Making a Murderer's Dean Strang & Jerry Buting: A Conversation on Justice.
Buting says their involvement with the docudrama was inadvertent. “We were not hired from the very beginning of the case. He had a public defender at first.” The attorney says that, by the time they became involved in what they thought was going to be a civil rights case, about four months after Avery was originally charged for the sexual assault and attempted murder, the filmmakers were already in place. “We were aghast about the whole idea of allowing somebody to film us,” says Buting. There were very real concerns about attorney-client privilege and the danger of information inadvertently being conveyed to the other side (filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos also were interviewing the prosecution), but Buting received enough reassurances that nothing would air until after both trials had been completed. “It took some trust. They kept their word on everything.”
After six weeks of filming the trial and many years of inactivity, Buting wondered if the footage would ever air. He thought it might yield a two-hour documentary, and then eventually heard that Netflix had purchased the project. He, like the rest of us, was surprised at the public's response. "Even after watching it, I knew it was very good, tightly edited, had a lot of interesting things that would keep people watching it. I didn't have any idea [how big it would become]."
A Conversation On Justice already has had a few stops nationally, and in each city, audience members are invited to submit questions to Buting and Strang, with the assistance of a local moderator. Buting says that the biggest questions concern the treatment of 16-year-old Brendan Dassey during the murder investigation. (Dassey was later convicted of assisting his uncle, Steven Avery, with Halbach's murder.)
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“People are surprised that he was, number one, taken out of class, without an attorney or parents present, the lawyer allowing him to be interrogated by the police, and also his own investigator (who had bias against the defendant), to have him go in and try and basically coerce his client into confessing, telling him how to draw diagrams,” says Buting. He says that, when he and Strang first saw the documentary, it was a shock. Not only was the videotape not turned over to the defense, it was galling to see that the investigator was using a preprinted form with “I am sorry for what I did” and “I'm not sorry for what I did” as the only two choices for the accused. “And especially to see him, the investigator, using a preprinted form, which means he's used it in other cases, or ones after that,” says Buting. “That was pretty shocking, so we get questions about that.”
Other audience questions on the lecture tour tend to revolve around accusations by Ken Kratz (special prosecutor and district attorney of Calumet County, Wisconsin) that the documentary was biased, though Buting labels those accusations unfounded. As so much material can be found on reddit.com/r/makingamurderer, including transcripts, documents and exhibits, Buting is finding that some of the questions are very pointed and detailed. He encourages those interested in the case to arrive at the University of Houston early, and to think ahead of time about one or two questions to ask. “We've had some audiences that have submitted hundreds and hundreds of questions,” he says. “They don't all have to be serious; there can be some lighter questions about how this has affected us.”
He agrees that there have been several obvious victims, including Steven Avery for being wrongfully convicted in the first place, the rape victim from the first trial and the murdered Halbach. “It's morally wrong to have the wrong person convicted, but it's also terribly wrong and dangerous to have the right person to run free,” says Buting. “[Gregory Allen, whose DNA eventually tied him to the rape,] went off and raped another woman. The irony is that Allen was never prosecuted for the case that Steven Avery was convicted of; the statute of limitations had lapsed. That guy is actually eligible for parole in October of this year.”
The lecture is scheduled for 8 p.m. Saturday, May 21, at the University of Houston, Cullen Performance Hall, 4800 Calhoun. For information, call 832-842-3100 or visit conversationonjustice.com. $49.50.