Making A Murderer’s Jerry Buting Talks Ethics, Justice And Being Overlooked For Hot Dean Strang

"He gets the love more than me. I think it's the hair."

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In the wake of their work defending Steven Avery in Netflix’s surprise hit documentary, Making a Murderer, Wisconsin attorneys Jerry Buting and Dean Strang have become unlikely cult figures. And, though the shift from small town barristers to international semi-celebrity seems a little strange for these two genial, intelligent middle-aged guys, they’re now seeking to turn the media fascination into something more worthwhile by taking to the road.

Upon the announcement of their Australian tour last week — they’re coming in November to talk about the show and the justice system more generally — we spoke to Buting about the ethics in touring off the back of a case like Steven Avery’s, Dean Strang’s sex symbol status and what Dean and Jerry are hoping to achieve with the tour.

Junkee: Let’s start with the big question: will the tour feature prosecutor Ken Kratz as a guest star?

Jerry Buting: *Laughs* No, I don’t think so. If he wants to come over on his own tour that would be fine, but I’m not sure the three of us in the same room is a good idea right now.

Do you think your newfound celebrity is making it easier or harder to fight for criminal justice than when you were both just regular lawyers in Wisconsin?

I don’t think it’s harder. I would hope it would be easier… Since the documentary has come out, it’s been frustrating for [us] to go into court where we see the same sort of things happening — you want to be like “wait a minute — haven’t you guys been paying attention?” Judges, especially. They should be bending over backwards to try and ensure that people think there’s fairness in their courtroom, if nothing else.

But the justice system in an incredibly slow-moving machine.

It is, you know, and it’s tightly bound by tradition. In America it took a while for civil rights to gain a foothold — and it’s not like we don’t still have problems between the races — but there’s much more equality than there used to be. And just like that has taken a while because people wouldn’t give up and people continue to fight for social justice, the same thing has to happen with criminal justice.

Do you think it’s a similar kind of battle to civil rights in terms of class?

No question. Class is a big part of the disparity and injustice in not just America but most places. There’s a chronic underfunding of programs for the indigent defence system, whether for Legal Aid in Australia or the public defenders we use in America. In Wisconsin, they pay the lowest hourly rate for attorneys to represent poor people of any place in the country — more so than Mississippi or the Deep South. When plumbers are making two or three times what people who went to law school for three more years make, it’s just tragic.

On a similar note, your tour wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t for Steven Avery. Do you feel an ethical responsibility around that? Do any proceeds to go to his legal fund?

Dean and I are donating significant portions of the proceeds to equal justice initiatives both national and local, in various places. Because we might eventually be witnesses in a post-conviction motion for a new trial, we can’t be paying a defendant directly, because then we’re in a position where we could obviously be [seen as] biased.

Are you guys still in contact with Steven Avery or are you prevented from doing that now that you’re not his lawyers?

We met with the Averys the day before the documentary was to be released, but when he took on new counsel, there’s an ethical rule that once a party has an attorney representing them on a matter, another attorney can’t contact that party. So we have not been in contact with him for the last couple of months.

With all the interest in Steven Avery, it can seem like the story of the victim has been a little bit lost, which is a common criticism for true crime more generally. Do you think there’s a chance that the publicity for the series and your tour will help find justice for Teresa Halbach?

Well, if the publicity leads to her true killer being arrested and prosecuted, I think that’s the best justice that the Halbachs can get. I’m convinced that the state never proved its case beyond reasonable doubt and that Steven is not responsible for the death of Teresa Halbach. That means, like any other exoneration case, not only do you imprison the wrong person but the real perpetrator gets off.

As was demonstrated in the documentary, in his first wrongful conviction [for first degree sexual assault, attempted first-degree murder and false imprisonment of Penny Beerntsen] the real perpetrator — the real rapist — went off and raped another woman before Steven was released. The victim in that case really wasn’t responsible for misidentifying him — it was the police that led her to do that and steered her away from the real rapist. I’m sure it’s not an easy burden for her to deal with. The Halbachs have been very private with their feelings since the documentary has come out, they did not grant access to the filmmakers otherwise there would’ve been more from their perspective included as well.

For both the Halbachs and Penny Beerntsen, it must be a very traumatic experience, not just being the victims of crimes like these but to then have their experience actively manipulated.

I’m sure that it is. In fact, there’s been enough exonerations now in America, some of the victim’s family members and the victims themselves have become champions of improving police investigative procedures and court procedures to try and avoid someone else having to go through what they did.

Another issue with true crime as a genre is that there’s a fine line between being informative and simply serving as entertainment. Do you think there’s a way of turning the interest in the case into something actionable? Some kind of genuine change?

I hope so. I’m optimistic and encouraged that we can. The thing about labelling something as entertainment is that it can sound pejorative, but with the demands on people’s time these days, even trying to earn a living can mean working more than one job, raising children and all of their activities. All this means there’s very little time for people to focus on their culture and their system of justice, for instance, so in order to engage their interest, you have to have something that is interesting enough for them to sit down, and in this case, spend ten hours watching.

In the cities where we’ve toured and the people that we’ve spoken with already, the people that have come to hear us have been very thoughtful and concerned about seeing that change does happen. So I think that it’s incremental — it’s going to take time but I do think there’s a groundswell of interest in our system of justice in whatever country you might live in and so I’m hopeful that some good can ultimately come out of this.

I don’t know how familiar you and Dean are with the laws in Australia, but my editor has told me that Dean is considered a regulation hottie here and she wants to know how that impacts your shared fight for criminal justice.

*Laughs* I’m not surprised that Dean is the one she mentioned because he gets the love more than me…

Sorry Jerry.

I think it’s the hair. And I have my loyal followers too — I’m not whining, believe me. [Ed’s note: do yourself a favour and check out].


This is a real thing I didn’t even need to make in Microsoft Paint.

I think that when people listen to him on tour or in interviews or in the documentary, you can see that he’s a very thoughtful, eloquent spokesperson and I don’t think being a hottie has affected his credibility on justice issues at all.

Tickets to the A Conversation On Making A Murderer tour go on sale tomorrow morning with the shows kicking off in November. In the meantime, you can follow Jerry on Twitter or Dean Strang (who eschews social media) via his hair on the excellent Making A Murderer Hairstyles tumblr.

Courteney Hocking is a Melbourne writer and reformed comedian who has written for Good News Week, The Guardian, The Age and Crikey. You can find her general smart-arsery, Hannibal memes and comments on Dean Strang’s hair at @courteneyh.