Talks at charity event in Dubuque
By Dan Russo Witness Editor
DUBUQUE — Dean Strang and Jerry Buting are arguably two of the most famous Catholic lawyers in the nation right now.
“I’m going to be honest,” said Strang while speaking at a charity event in Dubuque recently. “I’m a bad Catholic and Jerry Buting is a really, really good Catholic.”
The fact that millions of people are even aware of these attorneys’ faith at all happened completely by chance. The pair of defense attorneys from Wisconsin were prominently featured in the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer,” which debuted in December and has since “gone viral.”
The 10-episode series depicts the story of Steven Avery, a man from Monitowoc County who served 18 years in prison for a wrongful conviction in a 1985 sexual assault case. He was exonerated through DNA evidence. After his release in 2003, he filed a $36 million lawsuit against the county, its sheriff and the prosecutor. In 2005, while this suit was still ongoing, Avery was charged and later convicted of murdering Teresa Halbach, a young photographer. The documentarians followed the second criminal case for years and completed the film after a jury convicted Avery. In the process, the film examined allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct that stoked a media firestorm after the series premiered. The documentary also provoked deeper questions about the nature of justice and the American judicial system as a whole. Strang and Buting defended Avery during the murder trial. In one scene filmed on Ash Wednesday, the attorneys were filmed with ashes on their foreheads, a detail that many viewers of faith took note of immediately. Strang visited Dubuque March 11 to speak at a fundraiser for the Eric Munson Athletic Foundation. Munson, a former Major League Baseball player, started the charity with his wife, Shanda Munson, a Dubuque native, to provide a way for young people to play baseball who would not otherwise be able to afford it.
“This is our first fundraiser,” Munson told the crowd of about 80 people that attended the event at the Holiday Inn. “We do anything for youth and baseball, making it available to all kids.” Shanda Munson, an actress and filmmaker, invited Strang to speak at the fundraiser.
After making passionate remarks about his love for baseball, Strang took questions for over an hour.
“What’s appealing about baseball to a criminal defense lawyer — baseball is the only game we play in this country where the defense gets the ball,” he said.
Strang talked about how the game has helped unify people over its history — alluding to the debut of Jackie Robinson as the first African American to break the racial segregation barrier and the 1970s era Oakland Athletics who brought people of different races together through their unorthodox winning streak.
“(Being a defense attorney is) a job that can cause people to loose faith,” said Strang. “Every job, no matter what you’re doing has its dark moments. Baseball tells us that if you loose today, you’re going to play tomorrow. Even the worst teams win some of the time in baseball and that’s a good thing to remember when you are a criminal defense lawyer.”
Most of the questions Strang took revolved around the Avery case and ways to improve the justice system. He did, however, touch briefly on how his faith affects his law practice.
“There’s a history in many countries, including this country of bias against Catholics — not so much recently, but Catholics know about this history,” reflected Strang. “As recently as the 1960 presidential election, people were asking John Kennedy whether he would obey the pope rather than the U.S. Constitution. His Catholicism was an issue in a presidential election. “Catholicism, 28 years before that, probably cost Al Smith the 1932 election,” added the attorney.
“It took until the 1930s before a Catholic even ran for president.” This history affects how Strang approaches his career in the law. “I think in some ways, at least my own experience — I can’t speak for Jerry (Buting) — There’s something about Catholicism that likes an underdog,” he said. “In many ways, part of what’s best about Christianity is something in Christianity that sides with the underdog. Jesus wasn’t hanging around with the wealthy people. He wasn’t hanging around with the cool kids and the cool gang. Jesus was ministering to prostitutes and the poor. I’m just speaking personally; my faith, as I understand it, calls on me to try to serve the less fortunate and at least to be aware of the plight of the less fortunate.”
When speaking about the justice system in general, Strang was optimistic about the possibility of positive change. He talked about, for example, how the recording of police interviews has helped further the cause of justice. “I think one of the great advances is the procedure of videotaping police interviews with juveniles and even adults,” said Strang. “Some police officers have agreed that it helps (them) if (they’re) doing (their) job right, (people) can see it.” Strang believes serving on a jury honestly is almost as important as serving in the military in terms of service to the country. “Thank goodness (a jury summons is) not a draft notice,” he said. “When you accept that call (to serve on a jury), when you serve honestly as a juror, I do think it’s really critical.”
Strang said civic education at the middle school level is in dire straights and needs to be strengthened. In response to questions on the flaws in the justice system, he urged the audience not to give up hope.
“The reality is that hopelessness breeds injustice,” said the attorney. “The only people who care about justice are those who are not cynical … Everyone of these institutions is composed entirely of human beings so flaws or failings are inevitable, but also I think human beings do good things … All of us seek justice. We just do.” The public must stay involved with the justice system and hold those who manage it accountable when necessary, according to Strang. “I think if the public would demand a little more humility from lawyers, and judges and police officers and people in the criminal justice system … and a little less certainty that we’re always getting it right and that we know best — in that humility we’d probably find a lot of good ways to correct a lot of the mistakes we’re making,” he said. “I remain hopeful because I think you have to. To give up hope is to give up on justice all together and I don’t want to do that.”
Photo: Dean Strang (left) talks to Sam Wooden, a public defender working in Dubuque, at a charity event for the Eric Munson Athletic Foundation March 11 in Dubuque. (Photo by Dan Russo/TheWitness)