One of the biggest TV hits, indeed phenomena, of the past year, was the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer, about the trial of Wisconsin man Steven Avery, who had previously been freed from prison after DNA evidence proved he was innocent of a rape and attempted murder conviction for which he had served 18 years.
Two of the most compelling figures in the series were Avery’s attorneys Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, and the Róisin Dubh is bringing the duo to Galway, on September 25, where they will discuss the systemic failures of the US criminal justice system, as well as the broader implications of the Avery case.
Buting is a prominent Wisconsin criminal defence lawyer who has featured in many high profile trial cases. He lectures nationwide and is frequently sought after for his knowledge in the use of expert witnesses and DNA evidence.
“I’m originally from Indiana,” he tells me over a Monday phone call. “My ancestors were from County Antrim and they came to America around the time of the 1870s Famine and settled in Indiana. My father did his PhD in organic chemistry and worked as a chemist for Eli Lilly. He was a chemist there for five or six years but he wasn’t making enough money to support the family, so he went to night school for five years and did a law degree. He then became a patent attorney for Lilly. I went to law school in North Carolina and from there I went to Wisconsin. My brother, who is a year older, also went to law school though he stopped practising after a while, so I’m the only lawyer in the family at this point.”
'People would want to chat or take selfies or whatever'
Buting reveals that he became involved with the Avery case when he and Strang were both recommended by Steven Avery’s civil rights lawyers on the case in which he was suing Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, for €36 million for his wrongful conviction.
"When they learned he was being charged with homicide they knew he needed good attorneys," says Buting, "so they settled their case on the cheap in order to get at least some money so they could hire attorneys and then they recommended us. We’ve been friends for quite a while but we’d never worked together in the same law firm or office. We have worked on other cases before representing different defendants in the same case but none of those ever went to a jury or court trial so it wasn’t like we were seeing each other daily.
"Dean was actually contacted by the Avery family first and then a week or two later he called me to see if I would join the team. We both had to make some arrangements with our own law firms because it was going to be very time consuming and money-draining focusing all our time on this one case, though I was very happy to take it on once we worked out those details.”
I ask if the attorneys had much contact with the programme-makers; “Our part of the filming was over once the case ended, except for one little bit at the end where they brought all the lawyers back together,” Buting replies. “For most of those years, from when the trial ended, until it aired, the film-makers were just putting it together, editing it down and, most importantly, looking for somebody who would buy it.
"I stayed in touch with them periodically to see what was going on. They shopped it around to HBO, PBS, and some other outlets but ultimately decided to hold back because none of those places were willing to give them enough hours. From all the footage they had they felt they needed more than the typical two or four hours to tell the story. Finally, it was a combination of the media and medium coming of age at the right time for them because, with streaming, it became possible for them to show a longer 10-part series whereas five years earlier that wouldn’t be feasible.”
The documentary’s success took Buting by surprise; “Nobody expected it would be as popular as it was, not just in America but internationally. That made both Dean and me overnight sensations in terms of recognisability. We were pretty well known as lawyers in Wisconsin and among a small group of criminal defence lawyers in the country, but nothing like what happened after the documentary. Then we became instantly recognisable, particularly if the two of us were together at any event or on the street even; people would come up to us and want to chat or take selfies or whatever. That was a big adjustment pretty quickly, I couldn’t go anywhere without being recognised.”
'DNA exonerations have really opened people’s eyes to what goes wrong in some of these cases'
Buting outlines some of the criminal justice system failings he and Strang will discuss in Galway; “There are serious problems in our system. Dean and I had both spoken about the subject before but we were largely preaching to the choir. A combination of things has now raised awareness; the growing interest in true crime as a genre, mass incarceration, police shootings being caught on cell-phone videos from bystanders.
"All this was culminating in Making a Murderer waking up America, and the eyes of the world, about what can happen when there’s this awesome power of the government against one or two individuals trying to defend themselves, and how that power can be abused or corrupted. So now the difference is the general public are interested in it, and not just in America. We’ve been in four different foreign cities and they all have their own instances of wrongful convictions, they occur in various criminal justice systems, some with juries, some without.
"People now have a heightened awareness of the risk to the innocent person, which has primarily been brought about through DNA tests, that can prove someone’s innocence. DNA exonerations have really opened people’s eyes to what goes wrong in some of these cases. This documentary has raised more questions about things like, 'Are we are using the wrong interrogation techniques, particularly against juveniles or people with mental limitations?' conflicts of interest, all of those issues came to a head in Making a Murderer.”
Does Buting believe things can change? “The first step in any kind of reform movement is public awareness,” he asserts. “A reporter once asked me if I thought the legislature might initiate reform and my answer was ‘No, it starts with the people demanding reform.’ Legislatures react to what their constituents demand. For too long people haven’t been demanding any changes; probably because they haven’t recognised the depth of the problem.
"Unfortunately there are many reforms needed to make the system better because it has been neglected for so long. One of the biggest problems is the lack of resources, particularly for indigent defence; people who are too poor to afford an attorney. The wages for legal-aid lawyers have been frozen for many years and now are being cut back –in the UK and Ireland as well.
"Wisconsin, which historically has been a progressive state, now has the lowest hourly rate of payment for lawyers who take on those cases. You get what you pay for in many aspects of life and it is no different in the criminal justice system. When you’re only paying $40 an hour which is less than what they paid when I started as a criminal defence lawyer 35 years ago, you see the skilled lawyers dropping off the list and the lawyers who take on those cases are often not as good or as dedicated as they should be.”
Buting and Strang have addressed many audiences over the past year and he relishes their feedback; “We did Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Oslo a few weeks ago, we had 800 people show up in Oslo. Including America, we’ve now spoken in 24 cities together and we’ve spoken separately in many more places. You’d think that after 24 engagements we’d have heard all the questions you could think of but amazingly every time we still get new, insightful, questions or else a fresh angle on a familiar topic. That’s maybe because we like to have a local moderator at each event and at least half the questions we address every night come from the audience.”
No doubt their Galway audience will have its own quota of insightful questions for Buting and Strang to consider.
'A Conversation with Dean Strang and Jerry Buting', moderated by podcaster Jarlath Regan, takes place at the Black Box Theatre on Sunday September 25 at 8pm. Tickets are €35 from roisindubh.net and tht.ie