The popular Netflix documentary series “Making a Murderer” made the two defense lawyers in the Steven Avery case overnight Internet celebrities with a cult fan base.
With that quick fame and a hunger for more from the binge-watchers whose hearts they won, Midwestern lawyers Jerome “Jerry” Buting and Dean Strang are spreading their passion for justice and the law beyond the Wisconsin courts.
On Friday, the pair will hold a “Conversation on Justice” at the Durham Performing Arts Center.
For Buting, Durham will be somewhat familiar territory. He came to the Bull City in the late 1970s, when trying to decide between Duke University’s law school and the one he chose, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Though he did his undergraduate studies at Indiana University and grew up in Indianapolis, one of seven children of parents whose common interest in organic chemistry brought them together at Purdue University, Buting had a natural pull toward North Carolina.
Tar Heel ties
Buting’s mother was born in New Bern and introduced her children to the official North Carolina State Toast to the long leaf pine – parts of which Buting still recalls.
His interest in the law, too, is rooted in childhood and hours in front of the TV watching “Perry Mason,” “Judd for the Defense” and other courtroom dramas.
After applying to Duke and UNC and getting in to both, it was a question on a Thursday night in 1978 that helped Buting decide where to get his degree.
“Back then, Thursday was the start of the weekend, and I asked where people went out,” Buting recalled in a recent telephone interview. “Everybody said, ‘Go to Chapel Hill,’ so that’s where I went.”
While at UNC, Buting participated in a law clinic that took him inside some of North Carolina’s courthouses – in Hillsborough, Durham, Raleigh and elsewhere – to help with bad check cases and more.
After his first year in school, Buting helped with a research project that took him to every county in North Carolina. The United States had reinstated the death penalty in 1976, and the study looked at all levels of discretion used by prosecutors, police, the medical examiner and others in capital punishment cases.
Rich Rosen, a retired UNC law professor, remembers Buting from his student days and is a fan of “Making a Murderer.” The documentary explores the story of Steven Avery, a Wisconsin man whose case highlights broader questions about the effectiveness and fairness of the U.S. criminal justice system.
“There’s nothing that makes a teacher happier than seeing a student go on and doing well,” said Rosen, who has focused much of his career on freeing the wrongfully convicted.
“If you have done innocence work as I have, some of the things we saw in that movie are things that have happened in North Carolina,” Rosen said about “Making a Murderer.” “It displays the ambiguity of the criminal justice system. A lot of people watch it and cannot say at the end whether Avery is innocent or guilty. I would describe it as clearly a tainted prosecution. The police did things in there that are very disturbing.”
Social media spotlight
Like Buting, Strang got his start in law from an East Coast school, getting his law degree in 1982 from the University of Virginia.
Now the two are described as a “dynamic duo” and social media “heartthrobs,” with posters comparing them to Atticus Finch and Bob Newhart, “Stephen Colbert meets Coach Taylor,” the “good guys” and humble heroes fighting the system. Their Twitter following has grown from dozens to thousands. They have inspired such parody Twitter accounts as @sexyDeanStrang and @sexyJerryButing.
Buting said it can be “a little awkward” at times when he’s walking down the street or sitting quietly in a restaurant and people come up to him, hoping to talk at length about the case or pose with him for selfies. But he hardly minds.
“People are very nice,” he said.
The lawyers have been intrigued with some of the details turned up by Internet sleuths and theories that have resulted. The reaction also has led to some second guessing.
“You always second-guess yourself after losing a case,” Buting said. “Maybe this would have worked, maybe not that.”
Ultimately, he contended it was prejudicial pretrial publicity by the district attorney and an inability to point the finger at anybody else that led to insurmountable problems for the defense.
Durham’s Peterson case
Buting said he did not agree to grant documentarians Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos behind-the-scenes access without first pondering a North Carolina case.
Buting knew Chapel Hill attorneyDavid Rudolf from law school and was familiar with his defense of Durham resident Michael Peterson and “The Staircase” documentary in which French filmmaker Jean-Xavier de Lestrade chronicled the trial, the lawyers and the legal conversations out of the public eye.
After considering how that documentary turned out – and while being troubled by the local media coverage of the Avery case – Buting said he agreed to give the “Making a Murderer” chroniclers access.
“They did a really interesting thing,” Buting said. “These documentary filmmakers watched the reporters, too.”
Some of their footage shows reporters asking tough questions, then using soundbites that did not reflect the complexity and layers of the responses they got.
“There just really isn’t time to talk about these things seriously in a three-minute news segment,” Buting said.
Buting, who practices law during the week and tours the country with Strang on the weekend, addressed criticism of the documentary since its airing in December. Some have said it left out evidence that would have put the prosecutors in a more favorable light.
“It left out defense evidence, too,” Buting responded. “To say that stuff was left out that was hugely important is misleading.”
At DPAC on Friday, Buting and Strang plan to talk some about the case, but they hope to spend more time talking about systemic problems with the justice system and, more importantly, solutions.
What: Dean Strang and Jerry Buting: A Conversation on Justice
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham
Info: dpacnc.com or 919-680-2787