“Human endeavors are muddy. They are imperfect by definition.” –Dean Strang
Friday September 9th, 2016– Criminal defense lawyer and Wisconsin Innocence Project advisory board member Dean Strang, known for his role as Steven Avery’s defense lawyer in the Emmy award winning series Making A Murderer, spoke at Syracuse University’s Hendrick’s Chapel as part of the Maxwell School’s State of Democracy lecture series.
The Making a Murderer series, which first aired in December, 2015 on Netflix, highlighted police corruption and raised questions about how the criminal justice system treats people who are disabled, lower-class, and less educated, using the story of Steven Avery, wrongly convicted of rape, as a real life example of these issues.
Some background on the case, for those who may not have watched the show: Steven Avery was initially targeted by law enforcement in his home area of Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, due to a conflict involving his cousin, who was married to the Sheriff. An incident in which Avery displayed anger and aggression towards his cousin, but did not hurt her, allegedly caused the cousin to seek revenge through her husband and his connections in local law enforcement. Avery had behaved this way towards his cousin due to salacious rumors she had been spreading about him, including filing alleged false police reports.
What began as a family conflict became something far more insidious as those involved used their positions in law enforcement to conspire against Avery, leading to him being wrongly convicted of the brutal rape of a local woman, Penny Beernsten, in 1985, when Avery was 22 years old, and sentenced to 32 years in prison. Beernsten was part of the prominent local Beernsten family, who ran a successful and well-loved local candy store. Avery was eventually cleared of those charges due to DNA evidence, but not after spending almost two decades in prison.
After his release, Avery and the state sought to sue Manitowoc County, the Sheriff, and the District Attorney for thirty-six million dollars for wrongful conviction. Local criminal Gregory Allen, who appeared similar in facial features to Avery, and who had a long criminal history of rape and assault, was in fact the offender, proven by DNA evidence. While Avery was locked up, Allen committed another assault. The county knew, back in 1985, that Allen was dangerous and had even been monitoring him. It became clear as the case unfolded, that not only had the county wrongfully convicted Steven Avery, and seemed to do so on purpose because they didn’t like him, but they had also let a dangerous and violent criminal remain free. More details on the timeline and the case can be found here.
Steven, with his friendly, yet direct and honest nature, became a Wisconsin celebrity after his release from prison, and garnered respect and attention from many people in the state government, as well as the public, for his efforts to protect others from being wrongfully convicted of crimes. Penny Beernsten publicly apologized and the two had a tearful reunion. When asked by the press if he was angry at Penny, Steven said, “No. It was an honest mistake. And I think the Sheriff put in in her head.”
The publicity combined with the civil suit resulted in alleged retaliation on the part of the county, and Avery yet again found himself embroiled with local law enforcement, who arrested him for the murder of photographer Teresa Hallbach, in 2005. Making a Murderer largely focuses on the Theresa Hallbach murder trial, which took place in 2007. There are many reasons to believe that evidence against Avery was planted, and that he is innocent, outlined in detail in the series. Avery was convicted and sentenced with life without the possibility of parole for the murder, which his attorneys continue to appeal.
Dean Strang was one of the defense attorneys on the Hallbach trial, and developed a cult following after the series aired. He is particularly popular among younger people, which may strike some as surprising, due to Dean’s button-down appearance and status as a middle aged, Midwestern man, traits which are not conventionally ones which propel someone to celebrity. However, Dean is very much admired by those who are aware of the inequities in criminal justice, and his work to draw attention to and change those inequities has won Dean consistent respect not just in his own field, but now with the American public. His warm personality and genuine nature are also traits which endear him to many, traits which were clear at his Hendrick’s Chapel presentation.
Disability and Class
Background given in the series mentions Avery’s intellectual disability and his diagnosis with an IQ of 70 as a child. He attended a school for disabled children. In disability culture, basing ability on a person’s IQ is considered outdated and erroneous, and it needs to be more widely understood that IQ is problematic, but it is a fact involved in this case that is important to be mentioned, because it indicates that Steven has an intellectual disability, even if it is not the best way of understanding his disability.
The Avery family were known in their small, rural area as being outsiders, and different. They were insulated from others, lived on their own road which bore the family name, and ran a salvage yard. They appear to be a close-knit, loving family, and Steven’s parents have always been supportive of him throughout his legal troubles. However, the family was perceived as belonging to a less desirable socioeconomic class, and were a target of local derision.
When Steven was a young man, he was often unkempt, his hands dirty from working on cars, and he had always struggled in school and did not go to college. The Averys were different from families like the Beernstens, for example, who were suburban and upper middle-class. The Averys were perceived differently, and treated differently, and Steven’s disability was a contributing factor in this treatment, as intellectual disability often is.
Another disability angle to this story is the interrogation of Avery’s nephew, 26-year-old Brendan Dassey, whom law enforcement accused of helping Steven brutally rape and murder Theresa Hallbach. Brendan, who also is intellectually disabled, was interrogated by police when he was a minor; he was 17 at the time of his arrest. Brendan did not have a parent or legal representative present during his four interrogations, and his mother stated that Brendan did not fully comprehend what was happening. No accommodation was made to ensure that Brendan could access and understand the information he was being presented with and asked to talk about during his arrest and interrogation. Brendan was convicted of rape and murder, and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole, a sentence which has recently been overturned. However, the state attorney general quickly filed an appeal, prolonging the time Dassey has spent in prison even further. Without an appeal, he would be free in 90 days. He has spent almost ten years incarcerated.
Dean Strang, who did not represent Dassey, stated that he was “Not surprised” by the state’s appeal. “The state often is very interested in preserving the status quo. And the status quo right now is that Brendan Dassey is convicted, he is in prison and this sort of inexorable pressure to keep him there I think, makes it no surprise the attorney general’s office sought to appeal,” said Dean.
A Call for Humility
A theme of Strang’s speech at Syracuse University was the need for humility in criminal justice. For those involved in the system to be able to admit when they are wrong, and to understand that the nature of being a human is imperfect.
Instead of having that humility, instead of being able to look back on their work and say, “I misunderstood this situation, I didn’t have all of the information I needed, I was wrong and this mistake needs to be corrected,” those in positions of authority in the criminal justice system all too often focus on upholding their decisions and judgments, Dean explained. Professor Lauryn Gouldin, from Syracuse University College of Law, who presented Dean to the audience and joined him on stage, added that empathy was also necessary.
During the Q & A section of the presentation, I asked Dean how humility and empathy can be practiced in criminal justice when there is a fundamental lack of knowledge about disability studies. How can one know they have made a mistake and used unfair judgment when their entire idea of intellectual disability is wrong, and their education on disability issues sorely lacking?
“The court system is very, very slow to accept changes in policy or to accept a new understanding of an issue such as intellectual disability”, Dean responded, “whether it is something like the science surrounding it, or a disability studies perspective. Those who work in the criminal justice system who tend to possess a better understanding of disability are the ones who work directly with disabled people, such as a parole officer”. But, Dean said, “by the time a person is working with a parole officer, that means there has been a conviction, and that is a problem. It needs to start with the police. Police must be trained to understand disability and a lot of cities have police departments now that are accepting this and doing work on it. It’s changing and that is very good, but it takes a long time.”
Life Without the Possibility of Parole
Another extremely pressing issue in criminal justice that Dean spoke about is the bias that marginalized identities and the impoverished face. Impoverishment, Dean said, is not just about a lack of money. It is often an impoverishment of education, of family or of support. People from this type of background end up embroiled in the criminal justice system at higher rates.
Increasingly, the sentence of life without the possibility of parole, which was given to both Dassey and Avery, has replaced the death penalty, and this sentence has increased in frequency since the 1980s. Many inmates with a life without parole sentence were given it before they were 18 years old, and 40% of people sentenced as juveniles to life without parole were in a special education class growing up. Brendan Dassey is one of them; he attended special education classes for support, and as mentioned, Avery went to a school for disabled children. The United States is the only country in the world which sentences minors to die in prison, some as young as 13 or 14 years old.
Reports from the Bureau of Justice Statistics confirm what Strang said at Hendrick’s Chapel. Data Collection: Survey Of Inmates In State Correctional Facilities (SISCF), as interpreted by the Prison Policy Initiative found that:
“..In 2014 dollars, incarcerated people had a median annual income of $19,185 prior to their incarceration, which is 41% less than non-incarcerated people of similar ages.The gap in income is not solely the product of the well-documented disproportionate incarceration of Blacks and Hispanics, who generally earn less than Whites. We found that incarcerated people in all gender, race, and ethnicity groups earned substantially less prior to their incarceration than their non-incarcerated counterparts of similar ages.”
One thing that is crucial for intellectually and otherwise disabled people is having a good support network, and money can make this a lot easier. Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey were surrounded for the most part by a supportive, loving family but that is not enough, unfortunately. Part of a support network for a disabled person has to be someone who understands law and civil rights, like a lawyer, as well as good teachers, social workers, and advocates. Having access to this type of information often comes with expense or difficulty, particularly in a very rural area.
Intellectually disabled people are routinely subject to discrimination in criminal justice, and are often victims of crime. According the the ARC:
“People with intellectual, cognitive or developmental disabilities get involved as both victims and suspects/offenders more often than individuals without disabilities. Individuals with this disability also constitute a small, but nonetheless growing percentage of suspects/offenders within the criminal justice system. While those with intellectual disability comprise 2% to 3% of the general population, they represent 4% to 10% of the prison population, with an even greater number of those in juvenile facilities and in jails (Petersilia, 2000).
Many individuals unintentionally give misunderstood responses to officers, which increase their vulnerability to arrest, incarceration and possibly execution, even if they committed no crime (Perske, 2003). ”
Further, those with Intellectual Disability are more likely to confess to crimes they did not commit, due to confusion, and tell police what they want to hear. This is why it is important for law enforcement to be trained on how to work with people who have Intellectual Disability; as Strang said; “It starts with police”.
We have to remember that these cases are complex, that there is a complex human story behind every sentence, and it might not be what you think. Having humility and empathy can lead to a better understanding of the complexity of human life, and the reasons that people end up sentenced to life with out the possibility of parole. The justice system often offers simplistic solutions to very complex human problems, with a one size fits all mentality. It is not working, and is instead resulting in impoverished, disabled, often juvenile citizens from difficult backgrounds being harshly sentenced to overcrowded, abusive prisons full of infectious disease, gangs and other problems, which affect society as a whole. After the presentation, I met Dean at the reception. He was really nice and told me about a case to research about Deaf people in the legal system. We are very pleased that he came to Syracuse University!
Further reading (trigger warning: violence, abuse and rape in first article, and in the books mentioned):