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Strang: Pay for court-appointed defense lawyers ‘an insult’

Dean Strang

Dean Strang

One of the attorneys who represented Steven Avery in his murder trial nearly a decade ago is calling the $40-an-hour rate that court-appointed lawyers get to defend indigent clients “an insult.”

Dean Strang, a criminal-defense lawyer and shareholder at Strang Bradley LLC, made the remark in front of a crowd of students, faculty employees and members of the public who had come to Marquette University’s Eckstein Hall on Monday for a forum held as part of the “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” series. Strang, who became known internationally after being featured in the Netflix series “Making a Murderer,” complained the $40-an-hour rate that court-appointed defense lawyers receive has not gone up in nearly 40 years.

Anyone who works for such low pay is essentially offering clients a subsidy and working at a loss, Strang said.

To make his point, Strang noted the cost of running his Madison office, which comes to about $200 an hour at a minimum, he said. That money is needed not only to pay four lawyers, but also two assistants and rent.

In other words, “when I take an indigent defendant, I’m just doing it for free,” Strang said on Monday.

Moments later, he added, “We scandalously and deliberately underfund the defense side in criminal cases.”

Strang said assistant district attorneys are likewise not paid well enough. District attorneys’ offices around the state thus have a hard time finding and retaining qualified lawyers, he said.

The “Making a Murderer” series, which Gousha said drew about 19 million viewers within the first month or so of its release last year, chronicled the murder trials of Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey.

Although the Dassey and Avery trials garnered a lot of attention throughout Wisconsin when they occurred nearly 10 years ago, the “Making a Murderer” series brought the case before an international audience. Since then, Strang and his fellow defense lawyer, Jerome Buting, have used the fame they gained from the series to tour the world and discuss flaws in the U.S. justice system.

Strang cautioned, though, that he wouldn’t describe himself as a celebrity.

On Monday, he talked at length both about representing Avery in court and being interviewed by the two filmmakers who made “Making a Murderer.” He said one reason the Netflix series became so popular is that it has broad implications for the criminal-justice system.

He said although Avery’s case occurred in Manitowoc, a small Wisconsin city that has no direct connection to many viewers, the same things could happen almost anywhere.

“If you’re interested in, or outraged by, or fascinated by something that happened in one county in Wisconsin,” he said, “what you really need to do then is ask yourself: ‘What’s happening next week in the courthouse down the street from me?’ Because many of these issues are not isolated or confined to the experience of these two defendants.”

Avery presented a highly unusual case because he had been previously sent to prison on a rape conviction that was later overturned when DNA evidence linked someone else to the crime.

Strang’s comments come about a month after Dassey’s conviction was overturned by a federal magistrate judge on the grounds that his confession had been coerced. Attorney General Brad Schimel’s office appealed that ruling on Friday, meaning the 26 year old will remain behind bars.

“We believe the magistrate judge’s decision that Brendan Dassey’s confession was coerced by investigators, and that no reasonable court could have concluded otherwise, is wrong on the facts and wrong on the law,” Schimel said in a news release after announcing the appeal.

Efforts are also afoot to have Avery’s conviction overturned. In the latest development in the case, a Milwaukee County judge on Monday appointed Milwaukee County Assistant District Attorney Norman Gahn as a special prosecutor in the case.

Gahn takes over for Manitowoc County District Attorney Jaclyn LaBre, who had cited a conflict of interest.

The Associated Press also contributed to this report.

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