Celebrity is new to Madison, Wisc. attorney Dean Strang, who's suddenly found himself in the limelight after appearing in the Netflix documentary series, Making a Murderer. While Strang may now be best known for defending Steven Avery, he has passions outside of the law. His first book, Worse Than the Devil, about a 1917 trial in Milwaukee, came out in 2013, and he's currently working on a second book, tentatively titled IWW Trial 1918: A Legal History of America’s First and Largest Mass Trial, which University of Wisconsin Press plans to publish in 2017. Strang talked to us about how human frailty is what makes the law interesting...and infuriating.
Worse than the Devil is about an obscure conspiracy case in which Italian anarchists were accused of setting off a bomb in a Milwaukee police station. How did you become interested in something that seems to have remained a legal footnote?
I developed an interest in Clarence Darrow in law school, and nurtured that after law school. One night in about 1994, while I was at work but procrastinating, I decided to check Westlaw to see whether Darrow ever appeared in the Wisconsin Supreme Court. He did; twice, actually. The [first time was for] this case. I read the opinion. It told something of the fascinating story that my book tells more fully. The clincher, though, was the fact that the street melee that led to the trial of the 11 Italian immigrants occurred in the intersection of the block on which I lived for over 15 years. People had been arrested in my house, as the police searched door to door that afternoon. I was hooked.
Clarence Darrow is a significant figure in Worse than the Devil and, I've read, one of your legal folk heroes. Your book, however, reveals some of his shortcomings. Did writing it lessen your appreciation of him? Or make you second-guess your decision to become a lawyer?
Clarence Darrow was a complex man, even a paradoxical man. The fact that he is not simply hero or anti-hero is what makes him so enduringly interesting. I believed that before I launched into serious research on the book, and I still believe that. And no, none of that makes me doubt my decision to become a lawyer. For me, law connects us to human experience, and to what it is that makes us human. Jealousy, trust, self-interest, altruism, greed, generosity, bad behavior and good, ugliness and nobility. The things that make us human underlie every legal dispute. They also underlie the rules that legislators, regulators, and courts draw to govern social life.
Both Worse than the Devil and Making a Murderer offer disturbing examples of the shortcomings of our justice system. Do you think these stories are cautionary, or representative of the fact that system is--and, maybe, has always been--broken?
Our justice system has always been broken because people are broken. The weaknesses of our, or any, justice system are human weaknesses; the strengths of our justice system also are human strengths. I think that we need to be more humble about acknowledging this, whether we are actors within the justice system or we observe it from outside. It does produce mistaken outcomes, often, because the people within it make human mistakes and act on human motives, good and bad. The question we should confront is not whether our justice system convicts the innocent or acquits the guilty. Or whether police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, and jurors fail their duties or break the rules. These things all happen. The questions we should confront are why these things happen and, most importantly, what to do about these mistakes when we see them.
I know your current project is about an old case involving the Industrial Workers for the World union, or the Wobblies. Any plans on writing about the Steven Avery case?
My real interest is how outsiders and newcomers fare in our criminal justice system, especially during times of high nativism, patriotism, or fear. The waning years of the Progressive Era, during and immediately after World War I, provide a great framework within which to consider these topics. My first book is set in that period. Same with my second book, although this new book takes on a trial and related events of more national importance, the 1918 IWW trial in Chicago.