By Angie Weisgal
Dean Strang, best known for his appearance in the Emmy winning Netflix documentary series, Making a Murderer, spoke at the University Concert Hall at UL Monday evening.
Mr Strang spoke about issues in the American legal system and compared and contrasted them with issues in the Irish legal system. The talk was hosted by the UL Law Society and the Law School at UL.
He introduced the talk by addressing the question he got asked many times during his legal career: “How can you defend those people?” He invited law students and non-law students alike to consider the question and how to answer it.
Touching upon why that question itself is important, Mr Strang explained why we must respect those who ask the question, what our answers to the question reveal of us, and will we lie with and in our answer?
He said that the question reveals so much about the questioner and therefore about many of us. He also said that the question is alienating and has racist and classist prejudices.
Mr Strang reminded the audience that there is no “we” or “them” and that at some point all of us have broken the law. He mentioned that “one in four Americans has a criminal record” and that there are inequalities in who gets caught and why.
He said that the way to go about addressing the people who ask the question is to respect them because people who ask the question are “not aware of the assumptions and alienation embedded in the question.” Any of us could be accused of a crime, he reminded the audience.
When describing what makes a good defence lawyer Mr Strang said that good defence lawyers “befriend the friendless” and “separate the human being from the inhumane act that they may have committed.” “There is no ‘those people,’ only ‘we,’” he reiterated.
He said that to become a defender is to ask the question “How can I not defend my people?” To relate it to those who are not studying law, he said that people of any profession or calling can be defenders.
Professor Shane Kilcommins of the University of Limerick, lead the discussion and asked Mr Strang questions about the American legal system and about the competing interests of different rights.
Trailer for Netflix documentary, Making A Murderer.
Mr Strang spoke about his personal experiences with Steven Avery’s trial and how even though the judge was aggressive in excluding prior misconduct, the media in Wisconsin spoke all about Steven Avery’s criminal record because it was available to the public and that because of the first amendment in the United States, there is little restriction of the freedom of the press compared to that in Ireland.
Professor Kilcommins and Dean Strang discussed false convictions and how harmful to reputation they can be and how not only the falsely convicted are hurt, but also the victims and their families.
There was a lot of discussion of whether or not Making a Murderer was biased and one major factor that Dean Strang brought up was the little access the filmmakers had to the victims family and due to that they were not as humanised as the Avery and Dassey families.
Dean Strang said that during the trial there was 140 plus hours of evidence which the documentary distilled into just three hours.
He concluded his discussion of the topic with saying that the editorial decisions were “fair” and that there is a defence orientation of the documentary, but not necessarily a bias.
He also said that there was a lot he didn’t like about how the media covers trials and the pre-trial and how it’s about providing “juicy material” for the media and because the defence is heard from later than the prosecution, it “erodes the presumption of innocence.”
When it came to if whether or not he would give up the “robust freedom of speech and unrestricted press” he said “I don’t know if I would.”
The talk concluded with Mr Strang answering what he would change about the justice system in the U.S. He had two answers for that.
The easy one, he said, was to abolish the death penalty because it makes “consequences less grievous.” His other answer was “it’s time to change how the police are taught to interview people.”
“There are better, more reliable ways to interview people in custody,” he said. He called the Reid technique, developed in the 1950s and still used today in the US, flawed.
He added that the “risk of inducing false confession is unacceptably high when psychologically manipulative techniques are used”. Because of a significant number, one in five to one in four, of exonerations involving false confessions, Dean Strang said that this must be the first change.