Dean Strang and Jerry Buting are the legal profession’s new poster boys (contains spoilers)
Over the festive period, the world has been transfixed by gripping American documentary series ‘Making a Murderer’ — and the defence lawyers featured in it are the stars of the show.
Described in Forbes magazine as “Netflix’s Most Significant Show Ever”, and drumming up commentary from the likes of Hollywood actors James Franco and Kristen Bell, the 10-part true crime series chronicles the unbelievable story of Steven Avery.
Avery’s life is turned upside down when, at the age of 22, he is convicted of sexually assaulting a local woman, Penny Beernsten, while she jogged along the Lake Michigan shoreline. Sentenced to 32 years in prison, the Wisconsin resident was exonerated from the crime by DNA evidence after an 18 year prison stint.
Reeling from his troubled journey through the criminal justice system, Avery pushed on with a $36 million (£24 million) lawsuit against the county for wrongful conviction. But, in a rather convenient twist for the authorities, Avery was then accused of the horrific murder of photographer Teresa Halbach, whose burned bones were found on his property. Brendan Dassey — Avery’s nephew, who has a low IQ — later told police that together he and his uncle raped and murdered the young woman, a statement he later retracted.
Viewers are treated to 10 hours of captivating insight into the lives of Avery and Dassey — though, frustratingly, we get little closer to discovering what really happened to Halbach. There’s an abundance of shaky evidence from the prosecution. The defence’s case is strong. Avery’s lawyers, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, argued that the physical evidence linking their client to the murder is weak, and there’s even a case to be made that the authorities framed Avery for murder.
Audiences seem to be persuaded — Strang and Buting have even sparked their own Twitter fan club.
— Kristen Bell (@IMKristenBell) January 3, 2016
Despite all this, Avery and Dassey were eventually convicted, much to the shock and disapproval of outraged viewers. Although the case was heard in 2007, the Netflix documentary, which was released last month, has seen a change.org petition launched demanding that Avery be granted a presidential pardon. It has attracted over 165,000 signatures.
A separate petition with 20,000 signatures on the White House website has called for both Avery and his nephew to be pardoned, accusing the justice system of failing both men and “completely ruining their entire lives”.
Buting is backing the petitions, via his Twitter account.
— Jerome Buting (@JButing) January 4, 2016
The UK prides itself on strong legal safeguards used to shield defendants away from miscarriages of justice, so it’s not surprising that British lawyers were equally infuriated by the case’s outcome. Olivia Potts, criminal barrister at 5 Paper Buildings, took to Twitter to compare the case to the infamous Salem Witch Trials, implying cases like that of Avery and Dassey aren’t often come by in the English criminal justice system.
Making a murderer. This is like watching the Salem Witch Trials. I just don't even know what to do.
— Poots in Boots (@_Poots_) January 3, 2016
And it seems other lawyers aren’t too convinced that a similar verdict would’ve been dished out on home soil. London-based trainee solicitor David Gee, noting that the documentary was angled in favour of the defence, said that it is:
Still hard to imagine a similar outcome [to the case] in the UK though.
And as for why this was allowed to happen across the pond, Gee added:
I think publicity and reputation play far bigger roles in the US where juries are more likely to vote in ‘community interests’.
Other UK legal profession reaction has focused on the media coverage of the Avery trial, marvelling at how the lawyers involved took part in press conferences before and during the trial in a way that may be considered contempt of court in the UK.