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Making a Murderer’s Lawyer Hero

Dean Strang wrote a book about a 1917 miscarriage of justice in Milwaukee. The parallels with Steven Avery's case are striking.

Milwaukee Public Television

Years before the Netflix documentary Making a Murderer conferred literary celebrity on him, before taking on (with Jerome Buting) Steven Avery’s murder trial defense in 2007, and even well before Avery was found to have been wrongfully convicted in 2003 of an earlier crime, Dean Strang was searching an online law database on a whim. It was the mid 1990s, and Strang had recently become a partner at Milwaukee law firm Shellow, Shellow & Glynn. He ought to have been working that evening but instead, curiosity got the better of him, and Westlaw beckoned.

Strang had been fascinated with Clarence Darrow, arguably the best-known American lawyer of the twentieth century, since law school, and well knew Darrow’s deep ties to the Midwest: born and raised in small-town Iowa with his law practice first based in Chicago, until growing fame brought more national renown, more notorious criminal defense cases, and more travel time. Might Darrow have tried a case in Wisconsin in the years before Leopold & Loeb, Ossian Smith, and the Scopes Monkey Trial? He had not, Strang learned, but the database did spit out a reference to a case in the state’s Supreme Court.

“I was drawn in immediately,” Strang told OnMilwaukee’s Bobby Tanzilo, “both because the story was so interesting and because the underlying melee happened on the corner of the very block on which I then lived.” The melee in question, a violent riot outside a church in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood, took place in September 1917, resulting in the arrest of eleven Italian immigrants, branded as anarchists, charged with conspiracy to commit murder. In November of that year, five days before the defendants’ trial, a bomb ripped through a downtown Milwaukee police station, killing nine officers and a civilian. (The culprits were never caught.) The defendants, also branded the Bay View Eleven, couldn’t have bombed the station since they were all in jail awaiting trial, but the prevailing mood made people believe they had some connection to the tragedy. 

That they were convicted was, in 1917, a foregone conclusion. The Bay View Eleven were viewed with scorn for their anarchist views, an ideology vilified since the Haymarket riots three decades before to Sacco and Vanzetti’s executions a decade later. More surprising, as Strang read on, was what happened to the eleven defendants post-conviction—and Darrow’s role, which bent an already corrupt criminal justice system into further suspicious contortions.

It would take almost two decades for that Westlaw search to become a book, Strang’s only book to date. Reading it closely offers a glimpse into a hidden corner of legal history and Strang’s literary—and lawyerly—aspirations.

By the time Worse Than the Devil: Anarchists, Clarence Darrow, and Justice in a Time of Terror was published by the University of Wisconsin Press in 2013, Strang had already passed some major milestones. He’d moved permanently from Milwaukee to Madison, married his long-time girlfriend, and started up a new practice, Strang Bradley, specializing in criminal defense. After stints teaching law at Marquette and the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Law School, Strang also began teaching continuing education classes at U of W. (The most recent course, this past fall, was titled “Women Leading–and Succeeding–in the Progressive Era: Not Just Temperance”.)

The book garnered a healthy amount of local press at the time (including a television appearance on Milwaukee Public Television) and some not-so-local attention, with a bookstore event at Chicago’s Seminary Co-Op and a Publishers Weekly review that found the book to be “a convincing and critical...exposé of a corrupt, confusing, much-abused system during a time lacking in oversight, bound to be of interest to hobbyists and scholars alike.”

Two years later it’s impossible to read Worse Than the Devil without hearing echoes of Steven Avery’s complicated case, stretching from his first trial for rape to the later exoneration, to his trial for Teresa Halbach’s murder and Strang’s defense of him. 

“Apologists insist that...exonerations prove that, in the end, the system works,” Strang writes in the book’s preface. “But a system that ‘works,’ when it works at all, only because volunteers and strangers persist in seeking justice long after duty-bound insiders have failed and quit is a system dependent on happy accidents to cure its unhappy ones.” 

The paragraph’s closing sentence, in particular, feels like it could be addressed directly to the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s department and the legal and police actors in Avery’s trial: “That is not rightly a system of justice at all: it is a system of chance, and a cruel one at that. It is an inverted system that sets self-justification for those on the inside above justice for those it should serve on the outside.”

Strang proceeds to detail a depressingly familiar story, in which the Bay View Eleven’s guilt is pre-judged by the media of the time, where all ten men (and one woman) are tried in the same proceeding, where prosecutor Winifred Zabel and Judge August C. Backus barely seem to care, while defense attorney William Benjamin Rubin seems handcuffed by Backus’s prosecution-favoring rulings, and the jury finds all eleven guilty, having sat through hundreds of hours of testimony, in a mere seventeen minutes of deliberation.

The delightful surprise is that Strang can write, and his stated aim of writing Worse Than the Devil not “primarily for academics or lawyers” largely succeeds. At times the prose gets dense, especially when Strang traces the sequence leading up to and immediately after the bombing, too bogged down in complicated exposition about the history of anarchism among Italian immigrants, the (minor) role of Emma Goldman, and other fruits of Strang’s thorough if exhausting research. (The reader, perhaps, did not need to know the difference between the type of sausage Wisconsinites of German or Catholic lineage ate.)

Fortunately Strang’s syntax grows more assured in later chapters, which describe the trial and subsequent legal actions. Amusingly, Strang gives away his confidence in his own literary skills in two asides: he’s quick to criticize the “tedious writing style—typical of the day and not atypical now” of one lawyer’s affidavit, while later admonishing an appeal argument that is “droning and technical in the main” where “passive voice prevailed, which made [those arguments] all the more soporific.” 

That the book’s chapter on Clarence Darrow is its strongest is less surprising. Strang’s fascination with Darrow comes through here, as it does in his defense work seen in Making a Murderer. But his fascination also mirrors that of many lawyers who view Darrow’s career and most famous trial defense as one to emulate. Gerald Uelmen, who worked on defense teams for both Daniel Ellsberg and OJ Simpson, wrote in 2000, “For fifteen years I kept a portrait of Darrow hanging over my desk, and I frequently found myself gazing up and asking, “Would Clarence Darrow turn down this case? What would Clarence Darrow have to say about that?” Ten years later, the lawyer, journalist and crime fiction reviewer Marcel Berlins wrote that Darrow “remains for me the ultimate example of the lawyer I would have liked to have been.”

Strang synthesizes a number of Darrow biographies (except the most recent by John Farrell, despite being published in 2011) and vividly depicts the lawyer’s strengths and foibles. The reader truly understands why Darrow’s involvement in the Milwaukee bombing defendants’ appeal arrived at a pivotal period: in 1911, Darrow was indicted on charges of bribing the jurors who served on the trial of brothers (and labor union members) John and James MacNamara for bombing the Los Angeles Times building the year before. (James received a life sentence for setting the explosive, while John got a 15-year sentence.). The bombing was a significant setback for the labor movement, while the ensuing bribery scandal, arrests, and trials threatened to damage Darrow’s reputation permanently.

Darrow’s labor contacts, people he regarded as colleagues and friends, subsequently gave him the cold shoulder. Darrow also wasn’t welcome to practice law in the entire state of California. But for his former protegé Sissman, who gave Darrow top billing in his law firm and funded his partnership, Darrow’s career might have ended. Such was Darrow’s fearsome reputation that, according to a 1921 affidavit from an assistant Milwaukee prosecutor named Frederick Groelle that Strang uncovered, when Zabel and Groelle were inundated with bomb threats at home and work from anarchists protesting the convictions of the Bay View Eleven, they, in tandem with Darrow, cooked up a scheme to create a phony error in the original record that would compel the Wisconsin Supreme Court to reverse the convictions.

Whether the reversal resulted directly from the alleged Darrow-Zabel-Groelle scheme is impossible to prove, but Strang presents a convincing case nonetheless. Once more, resonances of the Steven Avery case—the suspicious actions of the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department and their handling of evidence, and the seeming desire to slam-dunk a conviction despite reasonable doubt—seem to hover. “Neither the bomb nor the machinery of criminal justice,” Strang writes, “could blow open secrets or blow out the corruption of weak, ambitious, or frightened people. Infernal machines, both.” 

Reading Dean Strang’s work and delving into his professional accomplishments give some measure of the man. A lot more so than the strange afterlife of his Making a Murderer role, constructed by predominantly female viewers, who compare Strang’s speaking voice to Bob Odenkirk, his physical appearance to John Oliver or Stephen Colbert, and declare his “crushworthiness” on social media. (Strang’s co-counsel Buting attracts similar attention to a far lesser degree.) Such declarations are, of course, not precisely real. A documentary is to real life what an mp3 is to a sound recording. The transfer from the original to a copy of sorts both loses a lot and adds something, conferring fictional attributes on real people. 

So it’s no accident that Dean Strang’s micro-stardom arrived months after the metaphorical loss of America’s other most famous lawyer, Atticus Finch. For half a century people clung to their own created vision of Finch, whether or not it bore resemblance to what Harper Lee had in mind in To Kill a Mockingbird. And if they didn’t want to imagine him outright, there was always Gregory Peck, playing Atticus in the 1962 film, to gravitate towards—or to crush on. What a pulling of the rug, then, was Go Set a Watchman when Michiko Kakutani reviewed the novel in advance of its July 14 publication in the New York Times. Kakutani’s review broke the news—inasmuch as a book review can break news—that the prequel Atticus Finch, older, in poor health, reveals his ugly, festering racism to his daughter Jean Louise, now in her twenties, far removed from her childhood days as Scout.

No more could Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch, who uttered lines like “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what,” stand alone in American culture. No more could we fully designate him, or Peck’s portrayal of him, as a hero, fighting against a broken, racist system for some small victory of integrity. Instead Atticus Finch, thanks to Watchman, is more complicated and more crude, bitter in old age and rueful about the past. Harper Lee wanted him to be a cautionary tale, a relic of a tainted past and its glorification.

The ugliness is hard to bear; no wonder Lee’s editor Tay Hohoff successfully urged Lee to rewrite Watchman as Mockingbird. But it’s the same kind of ugliness that makes the real Clarence Darrow, his celebrity covering for playing fast and loose with the law time and again, a more troubling figure than his simulacra, in the form of Orson Welles and Spencer Tracy. Welles’s version, seen in the 1959 film Compulsion, fictionalizes Darrow’s defense of child-killers Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, and his breathtaking closing argument compresses the essence of Darrow’s hours-long argument to spare the killers—and all killers—from the death penalty. Tracy’s version, in Inherit the Wind (1960) adds cinematic gravitas to the Scopes trial, recast as an allegory about McCarthyism and anti-Communist fervor. Both films were released within a year or two of Mockingbird’s publication. America creates lawyer heroes only to be betrayed by them, and yet the cycle continues.

Atticus Finch may be lost, but now here’s Dean Strang. That thoughtful, caring figure we watched in Making A Murderer, is certainly rooted in his true self. But that truth has been heightened and edited, and relies on our need to make a hero out of a lawyer, a cultural fix that comes around once every few decades. We can imagine him completing Atticus Finch’s speech: “You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” Imagination, in this case, provides a poor substitute for Dean Strang’s day-to-day professional life: advocating for living clients or the dead who can no longer speak for themselves.