Dean Strang Unearthed Injustice Long Before 'Making a Murderer'

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on January 06, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

We've had some critical words to say about the lawyers featured in Netflix's 'Making a Murderer' documentary. But we don't have much criticism for Dean Strang, the Wisconsin attorney who, along with Jerome Buting, defended Steven Avery against charges of murder. Strang comes out looking like pretty much exactly what you'd want in a defense attorney.

But while 'Making a Murderer' has brought new attention to Strang, the defense attorney was shedding light on criminal injustice years before the documentary. Starting in the mid-90s, Strang set to work exposing the racism, corruption, and injustice behind the 1917 conviction of a group of Italian immigrants in Milwaukee.

Worse Than the Devil

In 1917, a bomb ripped through a police department in Milwaukee's Bay View neighborhood, killing nine officers and one civilian. The police and public immediately set out in search of a scapegoat, quickly settling on a group of Italian immigrants. On the cusp of World War I, Italians were an easily vilified group in the Midwest; they were non-Protestant, recent immigrants, many with outsider views on labor and government.

That group of Italian immigrants, ten men and one woman known as the Bay View Eleven, were awaiting trial on charges stemming from a riot earlier in the year.

The climate in Milwaukee led to a trial that was "grossly mismanaged and sensationalized," according to Strang. The attorney's research into the trial eventually lead him to write Worse Than the Devil, published two years ago. Strang's book examines the Bay View Eleven's unjust convictions and eventual exoneration.

The Westlaw Search That Turned Into a Book

Worse Then the Devil came about almost by accident. When Strang stumbled across the Bay View Eleven, he wasn't looking for past examples of injustice, according to a recent article by the New Republic. Instead, he was just wasting time on Westlaw.

In the mid 1990s, having just become partner in a Milwaukee firm, Strang took a break to play around on the legal database. He began searching for information on Clarence Darrow, one of the most famous lawyers of the 20th century, a leader of the ACLU and defender of John T. Scopes in the Scopes "Monkey" Trial.

Darrow's involvement in the Bay View Eleven's appeal eventually saw most of them exonerated.

But Strang's isn't a heroic portrait of Darrow. "Although Clarence Darrow led an appeal that gained freedom for most of the convicted," the publisher's website explains, "the celebrated lawyer's methods themselves were deeply suspect. The entire case left a dark, if hidden, stain on American justice."

Lessons From 1917, Still Relevant Today

It took Strang more than two decades of research to finish Worse Than the Devil. By then, his representation of Steven Avery had concluded. It's hard not to imagine that Avery's case didn't influence the book's eventual form. In the preface Strang's words seemingly presage the renewed attention Avery's case would garner:

Apologists insist that...exonerations prove that, in the end, the system works. 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.

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