Dean Strang was a Wisconsin criminal defense attorney admired by his peers but little known to the general public. Then came "Making a Murderer."
This story appears in the May issue of Milwaukee Magazine, available on newsstands May 2 or online for purchase here. Be the first to get every new issue. Subscribe.
In late January, a month or so after “Making a Murderer” started streaming on Netflix, Dean Strang was at LaGuardia Airport in New York. It was a Friday afternoon. He’d just gone through security and was getting some belongings out of a bin, ready to head on his way.
Two men, each about 40, approached him within 15 seconds of each other. They recognized Strang from the 10-hour true-crime documentary, where he’s featured prominently as Steven Avery’s defense lawyer. They wanted to chat. They wanted a picture. They wanted their moment with him.
As the men took their photos, Strang spotted an elegant, silver-haired woman coming through security whom he recognized as Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Forbes magazine has ranked Lagarde as the 23rd most powerful person in the world.
Strang tried to point her out to his new admirers. They weren’t interested. Who was she? Had she ever been on Netflix?
Strang smiled, shook his head, and walked to his gate, thinking about the nature of celebrity. It’s an old story, but for him, a new reality.
Strang, 55, grew up in Greendale and is a criminal defense attorney now practicing in Madison. He looks less like a newly minted media star than an earnest assistant professor, and his passion for the law includes a keen interest in legal history. Strang and his wife, Jannea Wood, a Madison real estate agent, live quietly in downtown Madison, not far from Strang’s office, in the company of Rufus, their poodle-Wheaton terrier mix.
Back in 2007, Strang served as co-counsel along with Jerry Buting of Brookfield for Steven Avery of Manitowoc County, who was charged with the 2005 murder of freelance photographer Teresa Halbach. The case was notorious in Wisconsin, and the details are now well-known to the more than 19 million people who, according to Symphony Advanced Media, watched the Netflix series, in full or in part, in the first 35 days after its release.
Two years prior to the Halbach murder, Avery was exonerated after serving 18 years in prison for a sexual assault he didn’t commit. He settled a lawsuit against Manitowoc County for $400,000 in February of 2006, and the money helped hire the private attorneys for his murder defense.
“Making a Murderer,” directed by Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, is an extensive examination of Avery’s intersection with the Wisconsin criminal justice system, in particular the Halbach murder. The documentary includes numerous courtroom scenes, and viewers are also privy to the defense team’s preparations outside of court (the prosecution did not cooperate with the filmmakers).
When Avery was found guilty in March 2007, Strang’s defense did not elicit many favorable comments from strangers, and not because he lost the case. Just the opposite. Defense attorneys learn to live with cocktail party questions about how they could possibly defend “those people.”
The tone has shifted considerably since the documentary’s debut. As word spread about the series, which it did, quickly – the filmmakers gave numerous national broadcast interviews – Strang’s email inbox began to overflow with missives from viewers. Many said the series, which is not flattering in its portrayal of the Manitowoc area police and prosecutors, had left them with grave doubts as to Avery’s guilt. By mid-February, Strang estimated he’d heard from 4,000 strangers. Interview requests piled up.
A worldwide dialogue had begun regarding the Avery case. Hundreds of thousands signed petitions demanding the release of Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, who was tried separately and convicted of being party to Halbach’s murder.
The celebrated author Lorrie Moore, writing in February in the New York Review of Books, noted “the documentary is pretty unambiguous in its siding with Avery and his appealing defense team, Jerry Buting and Dean Strang.”
For all the controversy in the wake of the documentary, Avery’s defenders, Buting and Strang, have been almost universally praised for their intelligent advocacy.
“In their skilled and righteous run at the state,” Moore wrote, “they also seem the only ones in the film in possession of cool, deep, permanent mental health, and thus these ordinary-looking men suddenly resemble movie stars.”
In Strang’s case, social media erupted with blogs and photo essays devoted to various aspects of his character and wardrobe. A blog called StrangCore on the social networking site Tumblr saluted Strang’s understated style of fashion. On Elle.com, a woman posted an appreciation headlined, “Deconstructing Your Sexual Attraction to ‘Making a Murderer’s Dean Strang in 13 Steps.” Strang himself isn’t on social media, but he was aware that he had become an Internet meme.
“It’s disorienting,” he says.
It’s not like Strang hadn’t been on the map prior to December 2015, at least in legal circles. He spent a decade with the highly regarded Milwaukee law firm, Shellow, Shellow and Glynn, and served as the first federal defender in Wisconsin. Strang helped win a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case out of Wisconsin, U.S. vs. Booker, concerning criminal sentencing. That decision came in 2005, the year after Strang received the prestigious William M. Coffey Defender Award from the Wisconsin Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. In 2013, Strang published a well-regarded book, Worse Than the Devil, about a deadly 1917 bombing at a Milwaukee police station, and he has another book manuscript due at year’s end.
But nothing in that resume could have prepared him for the aftermath of “Making a Murderer.”
Since opting out of his new celebrity status isn’t a possibility, Strang has chosen to leverage his momentary fame by instigating a conversation about the criminal justice system. “This is the only time in my life when people will be interested in what I have to say,” he says.
Strang has had a front-row seat for nearly three decades now, and feels the entire system – and he includes defense attorneys in his assessment – could use a dose of humility, to offset the rampant certainty and self-justification. “I want to talk about the death penalty,” Strang says – he’s strongly opposed – “and about why children and juveniles get prosecuted as adults.” He thinks sentences are too long, and deplores the emphasis on “finality” as a value.
On consecutive days in February, Strang spoke at a college in Boston – and then a bar association in southern California. He estimates he will give more than 100 speeches this year. On his desk in February was a film treatment, from a writer in Malibu, for a bio-pic on Strang’s life.
The script could start with this: He never really wanted to be a lawyer.
Strang, born on the South Side of Milwaukee, was 2 when his family moved to Greendale. He knew from age 8 what he wanted to do with his life: draw editorial cartoons for newspapers. Strang’s head had been turned by the cartoons of Bill Sanders in The Milwaukee Journal, and Bill Mauldin, down the highway at the Chicago Sun-Times.
Growing up, Strang was influenced by his father’s father, a Swedish immigrant and a big man with a big personality who never finished second grade but made a career for himself as a police officer and casino guard.
“I was very, very close to him,” Strang says.
His grandfather stressed both the value of education and the necessity for a clear delineation between right and wrong, principles Strang absorbed and has relied on ever since.
Strang enrolled at Dartmouth University after graduating from high school in 1978. His principal told him he was the first Greendale graduate to go to an Ivy League school. During his freshman year at Dartmouth, Strang drew editorial cartoons for two student newspapers, and the reaction must have been positive, because at one point late in the term he wrote a letter – “it was either brashness or naiveté,” he recalls – to Bob Wills, then editor of the Milwaukee Sentinel.
“I want to be a cartoonist,” Strang wrote. “Would you consider publishing me?”
Wills wrote back: “We have a cartoonist.” In fact, the Sentinel’s cartoonist, Tom Curtis, was excellent. But Wills kindly added, “When you’re home on break, why don’t you make an appointment?”
Wills’ secretary set it up. Already nervous, Strang gulped when he saw Wills’ workspace. He’d never seen an office with a TV. “I was wishing I’d never written him,” Strang says. Still, it went well. Wills got him talking, and eventually said, “Why don’t you do a cartoon, and I’ll take a look at it?”
A day or two later, Strang – 18 years old – turned in the cartoon, and Wills published it in the Sentinel. Strang still has it. “It’s a matter of embarrassment to me now,” he says. Not for the drawing, but the subject matter. Strang, the future defense lawyer, had criticized the parole board for excessive leniency.
It turned out that Curtis, the regular cartoonist, had Army Reserve duty for a month every summer, and Strang was offered a chance to fill in when Curtis was away. He sat in on the daily editorial board meetings. He published numerous cartoons. He was on his way to the career he had always wanted, when, during his junior year at Dartmouth, Strang decided to change paths.
“I made what is still one of the most mature decisions of my life,” he says. “I don’t know why. I don’t know where the maturity came from.”
He’d thought through a future as an editorial cartoonist, and not liked what he’d envisioned, moving from city to city, up the ladder of bigger papers, spending his days behind a closed door, first summoning an idea, then drawing against the clock.
But there was a deeper reason that caused Strang to question cartooning as a career. “The cartoonist is always lampooning,” Strang says. “Criticizing, knocking the pompous down to size. Now, there’s great value in that. But you’re never trying to solve a problem. You’re always pointing one out.”
All these years later, Strang says, “I gave up my dream.” Ironically, it might have been the confidence the newspaper showed in Strang – in the editorial board meetings, he was 20 years younger than anyone else – that gave him the gumption to change career directions.
“He was a very good cartoonist,” Bob Wills, the Milwaukee Sentinel editor who gave Strang his chance, recalled recently. “I was very disappointed [when Strang changed direction]. I had my eye on him for the future of the paper.”
Strang had no real plan B, but he did have an aunt, Eileen Strang, who was the intellectual standout in his extended family, and one of only two women in her law school class at Michigan in the late 1940s. Strang’s father, never enamored of Dean’s cartooning goal, had been nudging him toward law school. Strang applied and was accepted at the University of Virginia.
He knew one thing for certain: He would be the kind of attorney who operates behind the scenes, planning, writing, preparing documents.
“I wanted to never be in a courtroom [working trials],” Strang says. “I wanted to never be involved in litigation. I didn’t think I’d have the personality for that. I was going to do pension work.”
To that end, he took no criminal procedure or advocacy in law school. He took an evidence course only because Virginia required it. Strang had his sights set on a large Milwaukee firm, Reinhart, Boerner, that specialized in employment law.
When they made him an offer, and he accepted, the expectation was Strang would begin in Reinhart’s employee benefits department. It turned out there were no openings. Until something opened up, Strang would work in litigation.
“I was disappointed,” he says, but it didn’t last. “I liked the litigators personally. They were fun. I began to like litigation. You could write and be creative.”
Strang started at Reinhart in 1985. A year or so in, the firm had a big case, an actuarial malpractice suit in Detroit, that wound up changing Strang’s life. Complex civil lawsuits often settle before they get to a judge and jury, but the Detroit case looked like it might actually go to trial. A decision was made to hire a top trial attorney from outside the firm to lead the Reinhart team.
That attorney, Jim Shellow, was a Milwaukee criminal court legend – brilliant, bold, driven, a man to be loved or hated, never ignored. Growing up, Strang listened while his father, who knew Shellow only from newspaper stories, dismissed him as a Mob mouthpiece. Now, at Reinhart, Strang realized that Shellow’s presence meant a diminished role for him in the big case in Detroit, a setback.
Then, as the trial date neared, Strang’s phone rang one morning before dawn. His immediate assumption: Someone died. Why else was the phone ringing at 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday?
Strang stumbled to the phone in his second floor Bay View apartment, and mumbled a hello.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” boomed an unfamiliar voice.
Strang replied that until a moment ago, he’d been sleeping.
“THIS IS JIM SHELLOW. I’VE BEEN AT THE OFFICE SINCE 2 THIS MORNING READING EVERYTHING THAT’S BEEN WRITTEN IN THIS CASE. YOU’RE THE ONLY ONE WHO HAS WRITTEN ANYTHING WORTH A DAMN.”
Shellow summoned Strang to his office. The sun was barely peeking above Lake Michigan when he arrived, and Shellow’s desk was piled high with cigarette butts and legal briefs. Shellow complimented the young lawyer on a motion he’d written, but soon they were disagreeing on a point of civil procedure. “That doesn’t sound right,” Shellow said. “I don’t know anything about civil cases, but that doesn’t sound right.” He reached for the phone.
“ARTHUR? THIS IS JIM SHELLOW. HOW ARE YOU?”
Strang realized, to his amazement, that Shellow was calling Arthur Miller, the Harvard University professor, who, with Charles Wright, authored the definitive treatise on civil procedure.
When he hung up, Shellow said, “Arthur says you’re exactly right.”
At Shellow’s insistence – and to the dismay of some senior Reinhart lawyers – Strang argued the motion at a pre-trial hearing in Detroit. Shellow was there. When Strang finished – “I was sweating, just a wreck, but I survived” – Shellow congratulated him, then said, “Let me tell you what you did wrong.”
The Detroit case ended up settling, and Strang ended up under the spell of Jim Shellow. That meant following a new track: criminal law. Strang left Reinhart for a position in the U. S. Attorney’s Office in Milwaukee. He did not like being a prosecutor, and left in under a year. “It was like, ‘I love these shoes, but I have them on the wrong feet,’” he says.
Strang wound up joining Shellow’s firm, where he spent the next 10 years doing criminal defense.
“Dean is a magnificent lawyer,” Shellow, who will turn 90 in October, says. “He has an enormous talent for reading and understanding the pleadings of his opponents, for perceiving issues and understanding not only what is being said, but why it is being said.”
In 2000, Strang became the first federal defender in Wisconsin, leading an indigent defense program based in Milwaukee, the court’s Eastern District. After a few years it expanded to Madison and the Western District. Strang, who had always regarded himself as “a Milwaukee guy,” was spending several days a week in Madison, and found himself enjoying the city.
By 2005, Strang was looking for a fresh start, personally and professionally. After a successful beginning as a federal defender, he was feeling bogged down in the bureaucracy. His friend Steve Hurley, a prominent Madison-based criminal defense attorney, had been trying to get Strang to join his firm since the two tried a federal case together in Minneapolis a decade earlier. Now, the timing was right. He called Hurley and asked if the offer was still open.
“Come over and meet my partners,” Hurley said.
It was in early 2006 that Strang got the call from Steven Avery’s family.
“He’d just started here,” Hurley recalls.
While there would be some money for the murder defense because of Avery’s settlement from the civil lawsuit related to his earlier incarceration and exoneration, it was certain to be a long, difficult road.
Hurley recalls that Strang said, “I want to take it. People should know I’m not the federal defender anymore.”
It proved plenty difficult. “There was nothing happy for Dean about that case,” Hurley says. “Every day there was something new to knock you down. It didn’t matter which box you opened. There wasn’t going to be a gift inside.”
The Avery trial began in February 2007, a year after Strang entered the case. It was Strang who brought Jerry Buting on board, in March 2006.
“I’d known Jerry casually since the late 1980s,” Strang says, “when he was at the State Public Defender’s office. We got along really well, and we liked each other.”
Strang felt, too, that their talents were complementary. Buting had a gift for forensic evidence, scientific testing, the collection and analysis of trace evidence. Strang’s strengths were writing and shaping legal issues. Buting was also, by nature, a little more aggressive.
The trial was held in Chilton, in Calumet County, with 12 jurors from Manitowoc County. Avery was charged with the intentional homicide of Teresa Halbach, and with mutilating her corpse. Halbach had been scheduled to take photos at the Avery family’s salvage yard. Her bone fragments were found in a burn pit on the property. Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, who told investigators – in what would become a highly controversial confession – that he’d witnessed the crime, would be tried separately at a later date.
Strang moved up to the area in January 2007, prior to the trial, renting a furnished apartment. Any long trial – and this one would go nearly six weeks – is a test of will.
“It’s something you have to be very disciplined about,” Strang says. “It’s physically rigorous, and emotionally rigorous. You have to be disciplined about when you’re sleeping, what you’re eating, and if you’re exercising. You have to be structured.”
Strang joined a local fitness center, and was at the gym every morning by 5:30. He took the idea of establishing a routine to the extreme at lunchtime, not only eating in the same restaurant every noon, but ordering the same thing every day – a grilled cheese sandwich.
Not the healthiest choice, but perhaps Strang needed a daily dose of comfort.
In mounting their defense, Strang and Buting were also dealing with an unusual variable – the documentary film. The filmmakers were actually on the case before the lawyers.
Strang recalled a conversation in which Laura Ricciardi, co-director with Moira Demos, told him she was reading The New York Times on the subway one morning in New York, in November 2005, when she saw a story about Avery being arrested for murder, after his earlier exoneration. Ricciardi had an epiphany: “I’m going to move to Wisconsin and make a documentary about this [case].” The two women were film students, though Ricciardi is also a lawyer. They secured the cooperation of the Avery family.
When Strang first learned about the presence of the filmmakers – “probably talking to Steven Avery in the Calumet County jail” – he was aghast.
“Jerry and I were both very leery of this,” Strang says. “What would be the boundaries? You’ve got attorney-client privilege issues. When is the film going to come out? Who are these filmmakers? Why does the client and his family trust them? We took it in small, incremental steps.”
But Strang was quickly won over by the filmmakers’ intelligence.
“They’re both very bright, and that’s immediately discernible,” he says. “They both were really interested in larger issues about the criminal justice system. Laura is a lawyer, and that made a huge difference.”
If Strang and Buting asked for privacy, there was never an argument. The one shoulder-held camera was unobtrusive. The filmmakers assured them nothing would be made public until long after the trial was over.
“They never betrayed our trust, ever,” Strang says.
After 19 days of testimony – 59 witnesses – the murder case against Steven Avery went to the jury. The defense had suggested Avery might have been set up by law enforcement. The theory gets considerable play in “Making a Murderer.”
But the jury convicted Avery of murder after three days of deliberation.
Strang took it hard.
“I personally could not have returned a guilty verdict against Steven Avery,” he says. “I couldn’t do it today. I personally am not persuaded that the state proved its case there, or even came close, honestly.”
Strang continues, “A guilty verdict is always really hard. If it’s been a long trial, what happens – it’s part of the psychosis of being a lawyer – is that you begin to believe you can win. It doesn’t matter how bad your case is, you wind up convincing yourself that you can win, that the outcome is in play. So when you lose, it’s just very hard.”
It’s interesting, Strang says. The cocktail party question – how can you defend guilty people? – should actually be turned on its head. The hardest defenses are for clients you believe might be innocent. How can you not defend them?
“Because if you lose,” he says, “you’re never going to let yourself off the hook for that. The feeling of failure and inadequacy, as far as I know, never goes away.”
Strang and his wife Jannea began watching “Making a Murderer” a few days before Christmas 2015, shortly after all the episodes of the series became instantly available. Strang wasn’t comfortable seeing himself on screen – this is a man who has never taken a selfie – but he liked the filmmakers’ decision to tell the story without a narrator, and he especially liked how the case was used to raise larger questions about the criminal justice system, initiating a public conversation he aims to continue with his extensive speaking schedule this year, with other opportunities presenting themselves, as well.
If he has a concern these days, it’s fitting everything onto his increasingly crowded calendar. Since early 2014, Strang has been point man for his small law firm in Madison, Strang Bradley.
Strang is also teaching, including a 5-week course this spring on Clarence Darrow for the University of Wisconsin-Madison Continuing Studies department.
He’s working on his second book, which he’ll complete later this year and concerns the 1918 espionage trial in federal court in Chicago of more than 100 members of the International Workers of the World (IWW). “It was the largest mass trial in U.S. civilian court history,” Strang says.
And then there are the speaking engagements. Strang and Buting began a 27-stop tour earlier this year; more often, Strang will appear solo.
The new demands on Strang’s time had him spending some weekend days in his office this past winter. It’s high up in a large office building just off Madison’s buzzing Capitol Square.
Sometimes he’d bring Rufus, who would flop down contently under Strang’s desk.
Strang’s office is comfortable and unostentatious. His few wall hangings include a framed Milwaukee Magazine “Super Lawyers” cover, as well as the Coffey award Strang received in 2004. There’s also a framed New York Times obituary of Stanley Kutler, the legendary University of Wisconsin-Madison historian who fought to have Richard Nixon’s tapes released. Strang calls Kutler “a close friend and mentor on legal history.” Finally, near the door, is a framed photograph of a young Thurgood Marshall, the U.S. Supreme Court justice whose work as a criminal defense attorney informed his opposition to the death penalty.
Strang had left his office and gone home last December 18. It was the day the documentary was released, but he didn’t give that much thought until he looked at his iPhone to check his emails. He has only one email address, and it is readily accessible on the website of his law firm. A message at 6:30 p.m. Central time got his attention.
“It was from a gentleman in Charleston, South Carolina,” Strang says. The man had stayed home sick from work that day, and discovered “Making a Murderer.”
“He watched all 10-plus hours,” Strang says. And he came away with dire doubts about Avery’s guilt.
“It was supportive,” Strang says. “He was generally saying he felt [the documentary] had raised real issues.”
Strang was taken by how the man had not only committed a full day to watching the documentary series, but then gone the additional step of finding the attorney’s contact information, and following up.
“That was striking,” Strang says.
It was also just the beginning.
Doug Moe is a Madison-based writer and former longtime columnist for Wisconsin State Journal and The Capital Times.