For more than a month now, people across America and all over the world — Netflix subscribers, to be specific — have been poring over the case of Steven Avery, the once-wrongfully convicted man who, in 2006, was sentenced to life in prison for the murder of 25-year-old Teresa Halbach. He's the central figure of the streaming service's hit documentary series Making a Murderer, and the question of his innocence or guilt is its central conflict. But it's about more than just Avery, too ― this one Avery quote from Making a Murderer sums up the problems underprivileged people face when dealing with the criminal justice system.
Basically, here's the idea: As anyone who's watched the series knows, Avery hired a dynamic pair of defense attorneys after he was charged with Halbach's murder: Dean Strang and Jerry Buting. While the duo weren't able to secure an acquittal for Avery, their diligent and tireless work on his behalf, their belief in his presumption of innocence, and their peculiar normcore sex appeal has turned them into veritable Internet celebrities since the documentary's release.
But here's the thing for any of you who watched Making a Murderer, and thought that if you ever needed a lawyer, you'd want someone like them ― they did not come cheap.
In fact, the only reason Avery was even able to hire Strang and Buting to take his case was because of a $400,000 settlement he reached with Manitowoc County, the conclusion of a $36 million lawsuit over his wrongful conviction and imprisonment in 1985. In fact, the documentary teases this fact as one of many conflicts of interest and potential reasons for Manitowoc County authorities to have had it out for Avery, and want to see him prosecuted ― the murder charge forced Avery to settle the case out of necessity, knowing that he couldn't afford a good lawyer otherwise.
This is a dilemma that average people face all the time. Even if you can't afford top-notch legal representation, you're still constitutionally entitled to a lawyer. But without all that cash, you're relegated to the ranks of the public defenders, and that's a pretty big distinction. Simply put, public defenders operate under onerous, difficult circumstances ― they're typically horribly overburdened with unworkable caseloads, and are therefore often unable to provide the same minutae-driven attention to each individual client that a private attorney would.
This is a big reason why plea deals are so common for people represented by public defenders ― getting a case quickly cleared by way of a plea agreement can be a very alluring idea. For an object lesson, compare and contrast the defense that Avery received ― vigorous, unapologetic, and at all times motivated by the belief that he was, or at very least could have been innocent ― against the representation his nephew Brendan Dassey received from public defender Len Kachinsky.
Dassey, then 16, was also charged with Halbach's murder, after a pair of investigators pried a confession from him over the course of four hours. Absent the kind of money Avery had at his disposal, Dassey had to accept a public defender, and ended up with Kachinsky. Where Buting and Strang defended their client's innocence, as he had asked them to, Kachinsky, well, didn't ― instead, he encouraged Dassey to admit his guilt and accept a deal, and allowed him to be further questioned by his own investigator without being present.
Ultimately, these actions ended up serving as the foundation of Dassey's appeal for a new trial, on the grounds that Kachinsky failed to loyally represent him. Kachinsky, for his part, has conceded that allowing Dassey to be questioned alone was a "mistake," but maintains it ultimately had nothing to do with his conviction.
None of this is to suggest that public defenders are the problems themselves. It's stressful, exhausting, and often thankless work, and moreover it's a basic necessity mandated by the U.S. constitution. In many senses, it's a downright heroic occupation. But from a systemic standpoint, this is one of the biggest problems that Making a Murderer highlights ― you might be entitled to an attorney, but if you don't have much money, the attorney you get will be assuredly less-equipped to fight and win your case. In other words, it's just like Avery said: "Poor people lose. Poor people lose all the time."
Image: Making a Murderer/Netflix (2)