City Life

Dean Strang of 'Making a Murderer' uses platform to speak about the legal system around the world

Strang remains humble even after Netflix fame

One afternoon shortly after the first season of "Making a Murderer" began streaming on Netflix in December 2015, Madison attorney Dean Strang returned to his downtown law office — he'd been in court — and found an unusual voicemail message. Someone calling himself Alec Baldwin wanted to talk to him and had left a number.

The actor? It sure sounded like him.

Strang called back and sure enough, it was that Alec Baldwin. A friendship began.

Like many others, Baldwin was mesmerized by the true-crime docuseries about the strange case of Steven Avery, the Manitowoc County man convicted of the 2005 murder of freelance photographer Teresa Halbach. Strang, with Jerry Buting of Brookfield, Wisconsin, served as Avery's defense counsel.

Baldwin, who once considered a legal career, had Strang on his podcast, "Here's The Thing," in 2016. Most recently, the actor — today best known for playing Donald Trump on "Saturday Night Live" — provided a glowing blurb for Strang's new book, "Keep the Wretches in Order: America's Biggest Mass Trial, the Rise of the Justice Department, and the Fall of the IWW," to be published this month by the University of Wisconsin Press.

"Dean is a great attorney and a gifted writer," Baldwin noted, "borrowing lessons from the past to help guide our future."

"He's been very generous," Strang says of Baldwin. "He's a very bright guy."

A show business friendship is only one change in Strang's life since "Making a Murderer" hit it big. The celebrity toward which he is largely ambivalent — there was a blog on Tumblr devoted to Strang's wardrobe — has allowed him to speak around the world about how the United States legal system works and doesn't.

In the first year alone, he estimates he gave more than 200 talks, from Hobart, Tasmania, to Tromsø, Norway. In early 2018, Strang did a two-month fellowship at the University of Limerick in Ireland and spent a day at the Irish national police training academy.

Strang speaks about the Avery case — "that series is the only reason anybody wants to hear what I have to say" — but always, too, about the "human limitations" of the justice system at large, and how the courts often don't protect people on the margins of society.

"He's taking this platform," says Strang's friend, Madison criminal defense attorney Steve Hurley, "and using it for really constructive purposes."

His books focus on those issues, too. Strang's first — 2013's "Worse Than the Devil" — was about the 1917 Milwaukee police station bombing that killed nine police officers and a civilian. Immigrant anarchists were believed responsible, and the community's fury spilled over to impact proceedings involving immigrants unrelated to the bombing.

The new book is a detailed examination of a 1918 federal trial of breathtaking scope. "One hundred sixty-six indicted," Strang says, "112 present on the first day of jury selection, 97 left at the time of the verdict."

The defendants were members of the Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, a union with members in every industry critical to the United States' participation in World War I. The charge was conspiracy for alleged disloyal statements and seditious behavior — in effect a preemptive indictment.

"There was real worry among politicians and industry," Strang says, "that if the IWW struck it would stop war production."

Can more than 100 defendants prosecuted together ever get a fair trial? It's the kind of legal issue that has interested Strang since the Milwaukee native walked away from a promising career as an editorial cartoonist to enroll at the University of Virginia School of Law.

Back then, Strang didn't see himself as a trial attorney. He felt it didn't suit his personality. He joined an employment law firm in Milwaukee. A career designing pension plans lay ahead.

But a large and pricey actuarial malpractice case put Strang on the same legal team as Jim Shellow, and it changed his life. Shellow is a Milwaukee criminal court legend — brilliant, passionate, larger than life. He saw something in Strang, who before long joined Shellow's firm as a criminal defense attorney.

Strang moved to Madison in 2005, joining his friend Hurley's law firm. Within a year, he'd gotten the call about the Avery case. The nearly six-week trial took a lot out of Strang, and the guilty verdict gutted him. He was convinced there was reasonable doubt.

The Avery trial was eight years in the rearview mirror when "Making a Murderer" turned Strang's life upside down. He had settled into a nice life with his wife, Madison real estate agent Jannea Wood. He was trying cases — now fronting his own small firm, Strang Bradley — and working on his books at night and on weekends when Netflix made him a celebrity. Friends say it hasn't changed him.

"That would be hard to do with Dean," Hurley says. "He is fanatically humble."

Strang is getting back to pre-"Making a Murderer" life now. His travel schedule is a little less hectic. And there are more books he'd liked to write.

Of course, he and Jannea watched season two of "Making a Murderer" when it was released last fall.

"We watched it," Strang says. "We didn't binge-watch it. I was struck by what a compelling character on television Kathleen Zellner [Avery's appellate lawyer] is."

That's a baton Dean Strang seems perfectly happy to pass. 

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his weekly blog, "Doug Moe's Madison," on madisonmagazine.com.


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