Attorney Jerry Buting’s popularity was on display during the Indiana State Bar Association annual meeting when he held the attention of his audience for 60 full minutes and then was kept around for almost another hour, answering attorneys’ questions and gamely posing for photos.
Buting and his co-counsel Dean Strang have become international celebrities for their work in representing Steven Avery, who was accused of murdering young photographer Teresa Halbach. The investigation of the murder, the arrest of Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey, and their murder trials were the subject of the 10-episode docuseries “Making a Murderer,” which debuted in December 2015 on Netflix.
Since then, Buting and Strang have been filling venues around the country and now the world as fans of the show want to learn more about the case and about the justice system. He was the featured speaker for the association’s keynote dinner Sept. 29. Norman Lefstein, dean emeritus of Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, was the moderator.
Buting was born and raised in Indianapolis and then went to law school at the University of North Carolina School of Law in Chapel Hill where Lefstein was one of his professors. After graduation in 1981, Buting settled in Wisconsin, working first as a public defender before moving into private practice.
Speaking at the dinner, Buting noted questions about fairness are not unique to the Avery case.
He said the bedrock idea of the American criminal justice system that the accused is presumed innocent is really a myth. To emphasize his point that defendants, especially in high-profile cases, have to prove their innocence, he asked the audience who thought comedian Bill Cosby, facing allegations of rape, is not guilty. No one raised a hand.
While the world has gotten to know Buting through the documentary, he was already recognizable on any Wisconsin street when he agreed to help defend Avery. But at that time, he and Strang were regarded as “the bad guys” and received hate mail.
The arrest caused a sensation because Avery served 18 years in state prison for rape before DNA evidence proved his innocence in 2002. Avery was treated like a hero after his release but quickly fell out of public favor when law enforcement charged him in the death of Halbach in 2005.
In fact, the animosity toward Avery was so strong that for the first time since Wisconsin abolished the death penalty in 1853, voters approved a referendum calling to reinstate it, but the Legislature did not.
Avery hired Strang and Buting a couple of months after his arrest and after the filmmakers had already started collecting raw footage for “Making a Murderer.” The attorneys were initially hesitant but set some ground rules, like no filming of their conversations with Avery, and eventually agreed to participate.
“The main reason we agreed to do the documentary was that we thought that it might be an interesting public education opportunity to see what it’s like to prepare behind-the-scenes for a big criminal case,” Buting told the ISBA gathering.
Buting said he and Strang followed the evidence and decided the clear defense was that Avery was being framed. Acknowledging “no sane lawyer” would ever make that a strategy, Buting listed the motives for law enforcement to go after his client.
The exoneration was an embarrassment to officials in Manitowoc County, where the original arrest and rape conviction took place, not only because Avery was innocent but also because the real perpetrator had gone on to rape at least one other woman and was implicated in a homicide in North Carolina. In addition, Avery had filed a $36 million civil rights lawsuit against the county, the sheriff and county attorney.
“So they clearly had reason,” Buting said of why law enforcement wanted to frame Avery.
In March 2007, Avery was found guilty of first degree intentional homicide and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of early release. His new attorney, Kathleen Zellner, has filed a motion for additional testing of certain evidence.•