Netflix’s latest hit original show, true crime documentary series Making a Murderer, is the pop culture touchstone that launched a thousand think-pieces on the criminal justice system and fan theories on “what really happened.”
[CAUTION: Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t watched the series.]
Just a few weeks after the show debuted on Netflix (NFLX), multiple petitions have garnered hundreds of thousands of signatures from viewers who want lawmakers to release Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, from prison. Those petitioners believe there was a miscarriage of justice when Avery and Dassey were convicted (separately) of murdering 25-year-old Teresa Halbach in 2005. The Making a Murderer series depicts the trials of both Avery and Dassey, which ended with their convictions in 2007 and in which the defendants’ respective attorneys alleged that their clients were the victims of police misconduct.
Avery and Dassey are both currently serving life in prison, with only Dassey eligible for parole in 2048.
In the weeks since the series debuted, there has been an Internet firestorm that has included countless opinions on whether or not justice was truly served and whether Avery may have suffered the second wrongful conviction of his life (he previously spent 18 years in prison for a sexual assault conviction that was later overturned due to new DNA evidence).
While a White House petition has reached the requisite 100,000 signatures to force a response, President Obama issued a statement, noting that the federal government could not overturn Avery’s state conviction (and, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has said he has no plans to issue a pardon). In the meantime, non-profit legal organization the Innocence Project has said that one of its members is “looking into” Avery’s case.
At the same time, Making a Murderer‘s massive popularity has also taken a handful of Wisconsin attorneys and turned them into either heroes or pariahs (for the time being, at least) in the eyes of many of the series’ viewers. Avery’s defense team is generally seen as the heroic side of the murder trial at the center of the documentary. Those defense attorneys are now enjoying a certain amount of celebrity, while other lawyers and law enforcement officials depicted in the Netflix series haven’t been so lucky.
Here’s a look at what happened to some of the people at the heart of Making a Murderer‘s compelling narrative.
1 Dean Strang
If a true crime documentary can truly have a “breakout star,” then that’s what Strang is for Making a Murderer. The show has thrust the criminal defense attorney into the national spotlight and his eloquent and impassioned arguments in Avery’s trial even inspired something of a cult following for the Wisconsin lawyer (with some even deeming Strang the show’s “sex symbol”).
Now a name partner at the Madison, Wisc. Firm of Strang Bradley and an adjunct professor at the University of Wisconsin, Dean Strang has been making the rounds in the media since Making a Murderer began streaming last month. He participated in a Facebook Q&A and has spent some time defending the documentary series from accusations of bias. He said that he hopes the interest in the case leads to new evidence. "I remain really haunted by deep doubts that he's guilty," he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "I really do fear that here is an innocent man in prison wrongly the second time."
Also of note, Strang wrote a book two years ago about a 1917 conspiracy trial in Milwaukee. The non-fiction book has some overlap with Making a Murderer, as it deals with defendants who are essentially tried in the media and failures in the criminal justice system.
2 Jerome "Jerry" Buting
Strang’s partner on Avery’s defense team also seems to have no shortage of new fans in the wake of Making a Murderer’s massive popularity. Buting is a name partner at the Wisconsin firm Buting, Williams & Stilling, where the specialties listed in his online bio include criminal defense in homicide and sexual assault cases as well as cases involving DNA and computer evidence. Buting has not been quite as omnipresent in the media as Strang since the docu-series debuted, but he has been active on social media. Buting has posted several messages on Twitter (TWTR) touting the Netflix series and encouraging amateur detectives’ alternate theories on the Avery/Dassey case.
3 Len Kachinsky
Kachinsky was the first court-appointed attorney for Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey. The court removed him from that role -- after he'd allowed his then-teenaged client, said to have an IQ of 70, to be interrogated by police without an attorney or guardian present. Dassey’s subsequent defense attorneys spent years arguing that Kachinsky failed to properly defend his client and that Dassey, who had confessed during interrogations, should get a new trial as a result.
Since the series debuted with its negative portrayal of Kachinsky, he has conceded he made some errors in the case but he also has defended his involvement in Dassey’s case, maintaining that it is not his fault Dassey was convicted. However, the fallout from the show resulted in a wave of negative comments on the Facebook (FB) page for the attorney’s law firm, Sisson and Kachinsky Law Offices, leading the firm to remove Kachinsky’s bio from its website. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, he continues to work part-time while battling leukemia.
4 Ken Kratz
Despite the acclaim he received initially for successfully prosecuting the Halbach murder trials, Ken Kratz later suffered a major fall from grace that included a sexting scandal. He sent unwanted sexual texts to a domestic abuse victim of a defendant Kratz himself was prosecuting. Kratz was forced to resign from his district attorney post (other women came forward, with new allegations), and he saw his legal license suspended briefly. Kratz also later admitted abusing prescription drugs and filed for bankruptcy protection.
While defense attorneys Strang and Buting have had the opportunity to bask in praise since Making a Murderer debuted, Kratz has seen the opposite response. Now a defense attorney specializing in immigration and DUI law, he has had his Yelp page flooded with negative comments, and the attorney claims he has been inundated with death threats. According to the Hollywood Reporter, he says his office received a "glitter bomb" that "caused significant damage to our office equipment and things like that."
Kratz, who turned down the documentarians' requests for an interview, nonetheless has been active in the media since the film's release. He tells The New York Times that the filmmakers took Avery’s side in telling his story and failed to mention several key pieces of the state’s evidence against Avery.
5 Denis Vogel
Vogel was the District Attorney who prosecuted the 1985 sexual assault case that sent Avery to jail the first time (and for a crime from which he was later exonerated). Despite Vogel’s involvement in the case that took away 18 years of Avery’s life, the attorney does not seem to be experiencing the same level of backlash as Kratz (perhaps because the state’s failures in 1985 have been well known to the public for more than a decade at this point).
Vogel has been in private practice since 1989, when he joined Madison-based law firm Wheeler, Van Sickle & Anderson. He focuses on commercial litigation, defending clients in matters ranging from injury claims to contract disputes.
6 Filmmakers Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi
Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi (a former lawyer) directed Making a Murderer over the course of nearly a decade. The two were graduate film students at Columbia University in New York when they first read a The New York Times article about Avery's arrest in connection with Halbach's murder. To this date, Making a Murderer is the only directorial credit on either filmmaker's IMDB page, though the series' massive success would suggest that likely will not remain the case for long.
Since the series debuted, Demos and Ricciardi have spent a fair amount of time defending their work against claims (from the likes of Kratz and others) that the documentary is unfairly skewed in Avery's favor. The filmmakers contend that it would have been impossible to include every aspect of Avery's six-week trial and that they chose the most important aspects of the state's argument against Avery (based, they say, on what Kratz spoke about in his press conferences) to highlight.
But the debate is likely to continue, as Investigation Discovery is producing its own documentary to "display some of the critical details missing from the Netflix production," Henry Schleiff, group president, Investigation Discovery, said. It is slated to air in mid-January. On January 9, Fox News will air its own special about the case.