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Making A Murderer's Dean Strang says true crime can be either 'destructive' or 'thought-provoking'

Dean Strang spoke to TheJournal.ie about the true-crime boom, the Irish judicial system, and the impact Trump has had on the courts.

When true crime veers into voyeurism, when it focuses on manner of the victims’ death rather than what they stood for in life, when it’s prurient, that’s when it’s destructive.
When true crime pretends to have a level of confidence or certainty by the facts, it’s dangerous.

SINCE MAKING A Murderer first aired in December 2015, US attorney Dean A Strang has been busy.

Having lost his anonymity after featuring in the Netflix documentary, his office has been batting at frequent media requests, he’s been asked to make countless guest appearances at universities across the world, including a guest lecture at the University of Limerick last year. This June, he’s to speak at the Dalkey Book Festival

Strang says taking part in the series had caused him to “think more broadly” about criminal justice issues, about whether justice is being served by the current system in the US, and to engage with other legal professionals from different disciplines and countries.

Even if you haven’t seen a single episode of Making A Murderer, the story is almost inescapable: Wisconsin man Steven Avery served 18 years in prison for the wrongful conviction of an attempted murder of a woman in the 1980s, and was then found guilty of the rape and murder of photographer Teresa Halbach in 2007.

Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, was convicted as an accessory to the murder at the age of 16, largely based on his confession under interrogation, which the defence argued was coercive of Dassey who has an intellectual disability.

It took over eight years to put the series together, which started as the Masters’ project of two students Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos from Columbia University. 

The students eventually sold the series to Netflix, which aired it and catapulted the show into the public domain and reinvigorated the true crime genre, as well as the case itself. In June last year, the US Supreme Court said it wouldn’t weigh in on Dassey’s conviction.

The latest series follows the appeal process: attorney Kathleen Zellner picks apart at the defence of Buting and Strang, saying they didn’t have enough experts to match the prosecution of the State. 

“It’s not something I enjoyed watching, for reasons trivial or not,” Strang says of the second season of the show. “Neither you nor I like watching themselves back on screen: I really don’t look like Tom Cruise, and some of what I say is really unartful.

Watching back also means reliving a significant professional defeat. It means that I’m thinking again about a former client serving life in prison.

He adds: “I’m convinced there is not proof of his guilt without a reasonable doubt, and that the system is failing him.”

The detail of the show is part of what it makes it so appealing: you’re privy to conversations between Steven Avery and his family, and between Dassey and his mother. It documents discussions between Buting and Strang about the case – but not between Avery and his legal team, which was something Strang was concerned about at first.

So why did they give the film crews the access they did, when other lawyers would have stoutly refused? 

“I would guess that’s probably true, and the answer is a long one. Jerry [Buting] and I were brought on the case four months after Stephen was charged, so we weren’t his first lawyers.

“The filmmakers had been there for four months, had won the trust of the client and the family and were shooting footage. The client’s family wanted to cooperate with them.

So we started to make a decision. Bluntly, Jerry and I had the first reaction of not wanting to cooperate with the filmmakers. We weren’t going to obstruct them, but we had the concerns you would expect with confidentiality, conflict and distractions.

He said that they talked with the filmmakers about what their project was, and what they hoped to present viewers with.

“They put that to us in the form of the questions they wanted the viewers to ask, and these were worthwhile questions they were posing.

He said that they asked the filmmakers to do two things: “You don’t go directly to the client or breach client confidentiality privilege, which was fine – Ricciardi is a lawyer.”

The second request, was “utterly unnecessary” Strang says: it was that nothing would be released publicly, not a trailer nor a short until Steven Avery’s trial ended. Of course, they couldn’t possibly get anything out before the trial ended, and were shooting until the end of the trial. So they kept their word.”

But Strang never thought it would be a film. It was pitched as a Masters’ project by two first-time filmmakers, self-financed students.

The true-crime boom

When they told Strang and Buting that they were “making a documentary” in early 2006, Strang had imagined an hour-and-a-half to two-hour long programme, not as a 10-part series which would be available worldwide, on-demand.

“It took eight-plus years to sell it after the trial – but it changed the genre helped to invigorate interest in true crime.”

And so it seems: the Making A Murderer success sparked a demand for true crime documentaries that (arguably) hasn’t been matched. In recent times, there have been series released on serial killer Ted Bundy, the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, and the trial of Michael Peterson for his wife’s death.

We’ve also seen the retelling of the OJ Simpson trial and the murder of Gianni Versace, the makers of which are currently eyeing up the disappearance and murder of Jean McConville. The Australian true crime podcast The Teacher’s Pet also led to the arrest of a man in the disappearance of his wife in 1982.

But what purpose do true crime documentaries serve? Are they there to be useful and informative, or are they a ghoulish form of entertainment?

“To me it’s both,” Strang says. “True crime books, films, and podcasts can allow the public to see how the justice system really works. It allows the public to ask ‘Are we happy with the way police, prosecutors and judges are serving us?’”

He says that true crime can “invite us into the messiness of many criminal cases, the difficulty in resolving them and the residual uncertainty they can bring, despite everyone’s best efforts”.

If you were on that jury, what would you think? What amount of uncertainty is too much, and what is an acceptable level?

It seems fascinating to me about how audiences handle an unknown ending: I was born in the 1960s, and we Baby Boomers were much more upset about untidy endings than millennials. They seem much more willing to live this messiness.

The problems with true crime

There are obvious problems with the genre too, Strang says.

“When true crime takes in the viewer to become an obsessive armchair detective, it can lead people into a solipsism that this case is everything, and people can get lost in that.

All true crime is representative: for every one Brendan Dassey, there are thousands of cognitively-challenged that come into custody. For every victim you see on screen, there are 100s of 1000s you don’t see.

Another element is the families of the victims of high-profile crimes. In the case of the American company that wants to make a series about Jean McConville’s disappearance, based on the book ‘Say Nothing’, the family are unhappy about it, accusing creators of making money out of their mother’s murder.

There was uproar after the film Detainment, documenting the questioning of two boys over the death of two-year-old Jamie Bulger in the UK, was nominated for an Oscar this year. His mother was not consulted in the making of the film. 

“We do have to acknowledge the singular burden any true crime story puts on the family of the victim, or the victim if they’re still alive,” Strang says. “It’s really a singular burden on the family. It’s also a burden on the family of the defendant – they’re singled out for a scrutiny that they did not seek.”

In spite of that burden, true crime can still be thoughtful and ethical, and have an offsetting public benefit. If we waited 50 years to make a story, until after family members have passed away, now you’re making a very different story that the viewer may not connect with about a relatively distant past.

“I do think it heightens the moral burden to recognise the singular impact on the victim’s family,” he adds.

Justice in the US versus the Irish judicial system

In February 2018, Strang taught a six-week lecture series at the University of Limerick, where he told the Irish News that he was “immersing himself in Irish law” – so what did he find remarkable?

“In criminal cases, you have what I see as a salutary tradition of prosecutors also defending cases and defenders in prosecuting cases. In much of the country, you have this tradition of people both prosecuting and defending, and that gives lawyers a richer perspective on what we’re doing and what impact our work has.”

He also said that the role the media plays in covering trials is different, as there are much more restraints in Ireland that aren’t in place in the US, which are in place in order to give those accused, as well as victims, anonymity in their pursuit of a fair trial.

As far as fair trials go, Strang says that Trump’s presidency has brought some “troubling” aspects, but also says there is a silver lining.

“Every new president will bend the Justice Department direction in one way or another, and it’s usually a matter of a few degrees. They’re important, but aren’t as dramatic or sharp as outsiders might think. These include a return to incarceration as a one size fits all answer, prosecution policies that have led to not just mass incarceration but enormous racial disparities, and a return to a focus on the most disadvantaged as the targets of the criminal justice machinery.

But there is one “ray of light peeking through some pretty dark clouds…”

“Donald Trump understands the power of clemency,” Strang says.

“He’s been willing to use it in his first term, and at times without the usual political cronyism. We’re in a country in which active clemency have plummeted, and he represents to me an encouraging signal that perhaps presidents can reclaim that power of mercy, and use it with less fear of the consequences for their own political ambitions.”

He said that this could mean Governors will be emboldened to use traditional powers of executive that demonstrates mercy, which, unsurprisingly, he views as important.

Dean A Strang’s latest book ‘Keep the Wretches in Order: America’s Biggest Mass Trial, the Rise of the Justice Department, and the Fall of the IWW’ is on sale now. Strang will also be speaking at the Dalkey Book Festival, which runs 13-16 June. Tickets and information on all events are available at: dalkeybookfestival.org.

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