Dean Strang, Trial Lawyer for “Making a Murderer” Defendant Steven Avery, Gives State of Democracy Lecture and Meets with Maxwell Students

Dean Strang Dean Strang, attorney and author, widely known for his role as Steven Avery's lawyer as documented in Netflix’s popular series Making a Murderer and for his book Worse Than the Devil: Anarchists, Clarence Darrow, and Justice in a Time of Terror, spoke to a large crowd at Hendrick’s Chapel as part of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs State of Democracy lecture series on September 9. During the day-long visit to campus, Strang also met with Maxwell School graduate students and attended an after-lecture reception and book signing event.

For his lecture “Humility in Criminal Justice: What It Would Force Us to Reconsider,” Strang drew on his long and distinguished legal career, including the Avery case, to illuminate the adverse roles that class, race, and ethnicity play in wrongful convictions and to examine how the U.S. criminal justice system deals with the issue of uncertainty. In asking the question, “How do we reconcile ourselves to this pervasive uncertainty and how do we administer something like justice, when so much remains so uncertain, so often?” Strang stated, “I think at least one answer lies in a value that has gone out of vogue with police officers, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges, and that’s humility."

In his remarks, Strang argued that humility would force us to reconsider among other things, the use of capital punishment and life without parole in sentencing; the finality of verdicts; and the two- to three-fold disparity in government expenditures for criminal defense as compared to prosecution.

Lauryn Gouldin, associate professor at Syracuse University College of Law, which co-sponsored the event, gave the faculty response to Strang’s lecture. Speaking to the broader significance of real crime documentary series, such as Making a Murder and the Serial podcast, Gouldin sees how the popularity of these shows may be a call for optimism. “These series… were widely popular, and the viewers were not merely voyeurs, when they turned off their TVs or stopped listening to the podcasts. Many people signed petitions, they crowd-sourced funding for legal defense, and they posted helpful investigative tips.” Gouldin went on to say that shows like Making a Murder help put a spotlight on important issues such as the need for videotaping confessions (to avoid false ones), increasing funding for indigent defense, and the “power and stickiness of narratives in criminal cases.”

Dean Strang Students

MPA ’17 students Francisco Santamarina, Alexander Demas, and Christine Brown greet Dean Strang before the public lecture.

To close the event, Strang took questions from the audience. When a student posed a question about effective ways for young people to attack the problems associated with the criminal justice system, Strang replied "A policy approach is really not from the top-down. What I think Millennials, Gen Z, Gen Y, I think your great gift, and your great opportunity is that you do this from the bottom-up. You engage in social media, you’re selective and critical about your sources of information. You know how to mobilize with people you’ve never even met, in virtual communities. I really do think that real work has to start from the bottom-up. If you wait for policy makers to change this, we are going to be waiting another 230 years. And I think that policy makers will follow popular movements and popular demand. We have to do better than decimating whole communities with mass incarceration.” 

Christine Brown, a graduate student in public administration (MPA ’17), attended Strang’s lecture and met with him earlier in the day. "The lecture really resonated with a class I’m taking called ‘Public Administration and Democracy,’ which is about bureaucratic ethos, but it's also about the democratic skills you need in understanding, and the ability to make judgments,” said Brown. “I’m considering going into nonprofit management, and I’m going to need to be emphatic, and I’m going to need to have humility.”

Grant Reeher, professor of political science and director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute—sponsor of the State of Democracy Lecture Series—introduced Strang, noting that “the Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey cases have riveted the public and have become a touch point in a broader, national conversation about prosecution and policing in this country.” 09/13/16