How UVA alumni and faculty became central figures in true-crime narratives
When a pair of filmmakers approached Dean Strang (Law ’85), hoping to look on, with cameras rolling, as he took on one of the most controversial cases of his career, he was understandably wary.
He’d be entrusting his reputation, not to mention his client’s, to storytellers whose aims didn’t match his. Whose standards of evidence, fairness and diligence were journalistic rather than legal. Who, embarked on their first film, were difficult to vet. It was a gamble.
“The lawyer wants to be in control of the narrative,” Strang says. “So the sense of turning over any of that control to a) an outsider, and b) an outsider who has necessarily a very different narrative vision of the whole, was not natural—and not comfortable.”
In the end, Strang, who practices in Madison, Wisconsin, and his co-counsel, Jerome Buting of Milwaukee, decided to allow the filmmakers inside their defense preparations. The result was Making a Murderer, a 10-part Netflix documentary series that has riveted audiences worldwide since it debuted on the movie- and TV-streaming service last December.
With the series’ release, Strang became the third attorney linked to the University of Virginia School of Law to have a case served up to a national audience in recent months. Professor Deirdre Enright (Law ’92) of the school’s Innocence Project became familiar to listeners of Serial, a sensationally popular 2014 podcast series that raised questions about an old Maryland murder. Army Lt. Col. Frank Rosenblatt (Law ’06) represents Bowe Bergdahl, the alleged Army deserter and freed Taliban captive who was the focus of the podcast’s second season.
All three have thus found themselves part of a hot new phenomenon in American popular culture: the true-crime serial. “Crime has always been a popular area of interest in America,” notes UVA media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan. “What’s changed lately is that podcasts, streaming video and subscription television like HBO have opened up space for long-form, true-crime narratives.
“It’s now possible to tell a complex crime story with deep forensic analysis and an eye toward exoneration,” he says. “This adds dramatic tension to very deep and complicated stories of human tragedy.”
Strang’s trust in the filmmakers has been repaid, and then some. Much to the unassuming Midwesterner’s surprise, he has emerged from the series a full-on media star, with a legion of fans, web pages and memes extolling his sex appeal, a Tumblr celebration of his “StrangCore” wardrobe, a calendar crowded with 105 speaking engagements, and a TV series of his own in the works.
That’s because the documentary captured “his remarkable compassion,” Professor Stephen Braga, director of the Law School’s Appellate Litigation Clinic, told a packed Caplin Auditorium when Strang visited the Law School in March. “The most impressive thing about the movie, to me, is Dean. … It’s clear in the movie that, for Dean, the law is not a career. It’s a calling.”
Still: It was a gamble.
Making a documentary
Making a Murderer chronicles two prosecutions, 20 years apart, targeting Wisconsin native Steven Avery, who lived and worked in his family’s salvage yard in Manitowoc County. The first, in 1985, saw him charged with the rape of a female jogger on a Lake Michigan beach. He spent 18 years in prison before DNA evidence revealed that another man committed the crime—and made Avery a statewide poster child for wrongful conviction.
Once released, Avery sued the county, its former sheriff and the district attorney who’d imprisoned him, seeking up to $36 million. The suit was in its pretrial phase when, in 2005, Avery was again arrested, this time for the murder of a young photographer named Teresa Halbach. Her last known location was the salvage yard. Her SUV and her remains, reduced to burnt bone fragments, were recovered on the property.
Making a Murderer makes the case that the official account of the second crime was fraught with contradiction, conflict of interest and unanswered questions, not to mention the specter of planted evidence: Manitowoc County deputies who discovered critical evidence implicating Avery—or were close by at the time—had given depositions as part of his lawsuit.
Strang and Buting make their first appearance almost 20 minutes into the series’ third hour. By the episode’s end, the pair—Buting, incisive and wry, and Strang, thoughtful, eloquent and deceptively mild in appearance—have become its protagonists.
They’re shown digging up evidence, developing strategy and ruminating on twists in the case and flaws in the criminal justice system. Three full episodes and part of a fourth follow Avery’s trial, during which Strang and Buting blow holes in the prosecution’s account of the killing and construct a competing narrative—that Manitowoc County’s case is a frame-up.
Throughout, Strang muses. “Human endeavors are muddy,” he says about halfway through the story. “They are imperfect by definition. And a chase for the truth in a criminal trial can be in vain. Justice, it seems to me, is staying true to the set of principles we have about what we do when confronted with uncertainties about the truth. On what side do we err?”
This sort of epigraphic aside makes him the series’ most memorable personality, its de facto narrator, its conscience.
But again, that was no sure thing when he and Buting were approached to participate 11 years ago. “Why did we do it?” Strang asks. “One, the filmmakers got there well before [we] got into the case, and they had already established a rapport with the client.”
The lawyers could have refused to participate themselves, or blocked access to Avery’s family—and, he says, they did declare Avery himself off-limits upon taking the case. But they recognized that a movie was in the works, with or without them.
Ultimately, Strang says, they were impressed by filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, who were “palpably intelligent” and interested in using the case as a “lens on broader issues of criminal justice.” They also promised they’d produce nothing for public consumption until Avery’s trial and that of his co-defendant, his 16-year-old nephew, had ended.
“Which goes to [the] point about turning over narrative.” Strang says. “Although we were turning over narrative, that narrative would follow, and not interfere with, whatever narrative we were presenting. That was crucial.”
Sure, but what’s a podcast?
Deirdre Enright followed a very different path to Serial. The founding director of the Innocence Project at the UVA School of Law, and its director of investigations for the past six years, she had worked with the podcast’s host, Sarah Koenig, once before, in the spring of 2013 when Koenig was reporting for public radio’s This American Life.
A year later, Koenig was back, embarked on another story, about a Baltimore man, Adnan Syed, serving time for the 1999 murder of his former girlfriend. Koenig had doubts about the case against Syed, who’d been convicted as a teenager and insisted he was innocent.
“When we first started talking about this, she was looking for ideas about how to investigate,” Enright says, explaining that Koenig would present her with various pieces of the case, and ask whether they were worth exploring. “So for a long time, it was just me saying, ‘That would mean something to me,’ or ‘That would mean nothing to me.’
“At some point I started realizing that if we were going to talk every day, she might as well have a team of students doing this for her.” Eight UVA law students worked on the case from March 2014 to early 2015; they interviewed Syed, pored over police and court files, and tracked down untested forensic evidence. “They were an amazing group of students who worked really hard for nothing—no pay, and no academic credit.”
Enright also agreed to let Koenig record her. In one of their exchanges, she said, Koenig “mentioned that this might be more than one episode. And then at some point she started talking about this podcast idea.
“I have to admit, I didn’t know what a podcast was,” Enright says. “I was thinking, ‘This Sarah is so adorable. She thinks the world is going to be fascinated by this, this stuff that we do all day, every day. And it’s not.’”
Just before the first hour aired—on This American Life, as well as online—Koenig called with a warning. “We really feel that this could be a thing,” Enright remembers her saying. “I just mean your phone, the [Innocence Project] Clinic, it could kind of blow up.”
“I was like, ‘Blow up?’ Really, I had no idea what she was talking about.”
Needless to say, Serial turned out to be a thing. Its 12-episode first season explores Syed’s case in minute detail, dissecting each sliver of evidence for and against him, studying his relationship with classmate and former girlfriend Hae Min Lee, deconstructing the police timeline of her death. Questions abound.
Answers don’t always follow. Perhaps the series’ most engaging element is its uncertainty: From early on, it’s clear that the story is unfolding as Koenig presents it, lending it a live, as-it-happens air. Leads hit dead ends. Feedback from the early episodes colors the later. Koenig herself swings from belief in Syed’s innocence to doubt and back again over the course of the story.
This weakness, in traditional narrative terms, fostered an addiction for millions of listeners. One measure of its success: Saturday Night Live parodied the series. Another: The podcast won a coveted Peabody Award.
“The genius of Serial and Making a Murderer is their embrace of ambiguity as a source of tension,” the Department of Media Studies’ Vaidhyanathan says, noting that Serial, in particular, recognized the value in providing “fodder for conversation in the six days between episodes, and to unleash curiosity and debate among listeners.
“For several months, my wife and I had a running conversation about Adnan … and the believability of his alibi—and that was happening in millions of households and offices across the country.”
Enright was a key on-air presence in two episodes. Her students’ efforts helped secure Syed a new hearing, an unlikely turn without the media-Law School partnership. And the podcast certainly advertised the Innocence Project’s work to listeners throughout the country.
“To this day,” she says, “I get emails constantly.”
“Extraordinary public animosity”
By contrast, Frank Rosenblatt is never mentioned in Serial’s second season, although it spotlighted the case on which he’s lead military defense attorney: the Bergdahl court-martial. The Army sergeant is accused of having abandoned his post when he walked into the Afghan desert and into the hands of the Taliban, who held him for five years before releasing him in a controversial 2014 prisoner swap.
The lawyer can say only so much about it, because the podcast, which completed its 11-episode run in April, explores a case that has not yet come to trial. It will be late summer, at the soonest, before Bergdahl appears in a Fort Bragg, North Carolina, courtroom on charges of desertion and “misbehavior before the enemy,” which could see him locked up for life.
Rosenblatt, who entered the service in 1998 and came to UVA through an Army program that sends officers to law school, allows that he listened to the podcast, “found it very enjoyable” and figures it might have helped his client. “The case we’re dealing with is one in which there is extraordinary public animosity,” he says, “and we’ve taken the view that the more the public understands what’s really happening here, the better.”
The podcast brought surprises. “She has given us some avenues to explore that we haven’t heard,” he says of Koenig, likening his experience as a listener to “a dinner conversation with four of your intelligent friends. They’ll always take a topic and add something to it, so that you look at it as you haven’t before.”
Enright was likewise intrigued by the Serial team’s approach. While Enright is accustomed to having all of her argument wrapped up before going to court, Koenig wrestled with her editors’ deadline, the professor recalls. “I told her: ‘You’re probably not going to solve this case in five weeks. That’s not how it works.’”
The public nature of the podcast’s investigation was both a weakness and a strength, she reckons. On the one hand, it ran counter to all of her lawyerly instincts. “We would never have our case play out in the public eye, the way that Sarah did,” she says. “It violates client confidentiality every which way.”
And in any as-it-happens series, a new witness or information flushed out by the process is almost surely affected by what has already been aired, and is thus compromised by the process itself. By the end, Enright says, it can be difficult to find “a clear memory that has been untouched.”
On the other hand, the podcast created widespread interest in the imperfections of the criminal justice system, which can only improve it. “Everybody thinks that Sarah found a needle in the haystack, that she found this extraordinary case,” Enright says. “That’s every case that we ever do. If you delve into any [case], it always has that kind of texture.”
The prospect for systemic mistakes is high. The courts are not infallible, or necessarily wise, or even particularly dignified. If you want a model for “how most look and feel,” she says, “think DMV.”
For his part, Strang has few regrets about his role in Making a Murderer, except that watching it meant “reliving a difficult trial that I lost, and for which the client is enduring the greatest consequence that Wisconsin law can impose.” Convicted of murder, Avery is serving a life sentence without parole.
The process itself was painless, Strang says. The series appeared a full decade after the action it depicts, so he never worried about its effects on his case. The collaboration required little of his time—most of the footage is from courtroom cameras and “two, three, four occasions during the trial when we’d let them set up in one of our living rooms ... and film us noodling about the trial.”
The series has not been without its critics, including Ken Kratz, the prosecutor in the Avery case. Kratz told the New York Times that the series “presents misinformation” and left out evidence used to convict Avery, including that Avery’s DNA was found on a latch under the hood of Halbach’s SUV.
Strang counters that the series faithfully captures the most important evidence from both sides, and that the filmmakers “made good editorial decisions” about what to include. “They gave more time to the trial,” he says, “than Doctor Zhivago gave to the Russian Revolution.”
Filmmakers Ricciardi and Demos did not respond to a request for comment.
Most important, the series, like Serial, has viewers mulling the imperfections of justice in the United States. Strang’s surreal internet fame has given way to opportunities for a new narrative: “Raising the sight lines a bit, and talking about systemic” issues.
“This is the good stuff,” he says, “to talk about broad flaws or concerns about the administration of criminal justice anywhere, by building on people’s interest in the two story lines that the film tracks, and to speak to audiences that matter to me—law students, undergrads, bar associations, bar conventions.
“This is a real gift that the film has given me. And that moment, which also won’t last forever—I’m trying to seize and do the best I can with that moment while it lasts.”