This is Part I of a two-part series about two attorneys from the Netflix series Making a Murderer, Mr. Walt Kelly ‘68 and Mr. Dean Strang, visiting Boston College Law School on Wednesday, February 24, 2016. Check back tomorrow for Part II.
“How many of you have seen Making a Murderer?” Mr. Walt Kelly, genuinely curious, asked the crowd of more than 300 students and faculty. When nearly every hand shot up, the room erupted with laughter. Mr. Kelly seemed to have underestimated the show’s popularity, especially among law students.
The Netflix series Making a Murderer was released in December to rave reviews, and quickly became binge-watching fodder for students on Winter Break across the country. The show, which was filmed over a ten-year period in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, highlights the story of Mr. Steven Avery, who was exonerated after serving eighteen years in prison for sexual assault and attempted murder, only to be charged with murder just two years after his release. Mr. Avery’s main criminal defense raised questions about conflicts of interest during the murder investigation and implied foul play among the ranks of the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department.
Last Wednesday, Boston College Law School welcomed Mr. Kelly, Class of 1968, and Mr. Dean Strang to campus for a panel discussion about Mr. Avery’s civil and criminal cases and the criminal justice system on the whole. Mr. Kelly represented Mr. Avery in his civil case against the County after he was exonerated with the help of DNA evidence. Mr. Strang, along with Mr. Jerry Buting, represented Mr. Avery in the subsequent criminal case against him. Both Mr. Kelly and Mr. Strang were prominently featured on the show; several episodes highlighted Mr. Strang cross-examining Manitowoc police officers, presenting closing arguments during the trial, and much more.
The panel comprised the two attorneys along with Professor Michael Cassidy, who teaches Criminal Law and Evidence, Professor Sharon Beckman, who teaches a class on Wrongful Convictions and oversees the Boston College Innocence Program, and Professor Robert Bloom, who teaches Criminal Procedure and helped organize the event along with the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Policy.
One of the major themes that emerged from the discussion was the importance of relationships and collegiality in the legal profession, from working with the media, to opposing counsel, to other attorneys within a lawyer’s field.
Mr. Strang advised of benefits to attorneys and clients alike resulting from treating the media with respect. “They’re going to print something,” he said, so attorneys should “talk to them even if you can’t talk to them,” rather than not commenting at all.
Mr. Kelly agreed, adding that dealing with the press is a central part of his job. “I try to be [as] cooperative as I can,” he said. “It’s kind of Basic Human Relationships 101. And over time you build up a series of relationships.”
Mr. Kelly also provided insight into working with opposing counsel. “Though I may differ with that lawyer and though we may go at it in discovery and on motions and in a trial, that’s also a relationship to be protected,” and one that should be “nourished” over time. “[It’s] not perfect,” he acknowledged, “but part of the game.”
The relationship that existed between Mr. Kelly and Mr. Strang was, of course, the impetus for Mr. Strang being hired by Mr. Avery. “Walt [Kelly] and Steve Glenn gave Steven Avery and his family both Jerry Buting’s name and mine,” explained Mr. Strang. “I thought, ‘this would be great’…I thought Jerry would actually be a better partner for this case than the folks I was working with who I loved dearly and I loved working with, but it was a good fit for this case to ask Jerry.”
Mr. Strang described the result of the case as a “heartrending loss,” but he found a silver lining in his shared experience with Mr. Buting. He said “[It was] something that we shared that’s important to us and that we will always have together, sort of a shared set of memories and experiences.” These sorts of collaborations, he imparted, lead to being a “happy lawyer,” an idea Mr. Strang referred to throughout the afternoon.
“You can’t be a cynical lawyer and be happy,” he said. Mr. Strang talked about recognizing that the people you work with, including your client, are human beings, and that they have their own pressures. “If you can’t recognize that, you really are going to end up valueless, in a sense.”
Possibly most valuable to up-and-coming lawyers were the words of advice Mr. Strang opened with: loosen up a bit, be available for serendipity, and hold onto great mentors. “That,” he said, “has made all the difference.”