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New seminar course and public event at S.J. Quinney College of Law explores flaws in the criminal justice system through the lens of the popular Netflix documentary series, which examines the murder of Teresa Halbach and the two Wisconsin men convicted of killing her.

By Melinda Rogers, communications manager, S.J. Quinney College of Law

“Making a Murderer: An inside look at the Steven Avery case with Defense Attorney Dean Strang”

Wisconsin attorney Dean Strang will speak at the U on April 5 at a lecture also open to the University of Utah community and broader public.

Strang represented convicted murderer Steven Avery and has a prominent role in the Netflix documentary chronicling Avery’s case. His visit is part of a new course developed by professor Shima Baradaran Baughman exploring criminal justice issues associated with the popular Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer.”

The lecture, which will be followed by a Q&A session, begins at 9 a.m. at the S.J. Quinney College of Law, 383 South University Street, Salt Lake City, in the sixth floor moot courtroom.

Like millions of other Americans, University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law Professor Shima Baradaran Baughman was captivated when the Netflix documentary “Making a Murderer” premiered in 2015.

The 10-episode series unraveled as the perfect crime thriller as viewers contemplated in each new twist of the case whether two defendants — Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey — were guilty of murdering photographer Teresa Halbach in Manitowoc County, Wisc., in 2005, or if they’d been framed by police and unethically prosecuted by a broken justice system.

The case was particularly unusual because Avery had been wrongfully convicted and spent 18 years in prison for a brutal sexual assault and the attempted murder of Wisconsin woman Penny Beernsten in 1985. DNA evidence exonerated Avery in 2003, and he became the face of how eyewitness identification can go wrong.

Why a man who spent so much of his life unfairly behind bars would throw away his freedom by committing a new horrendous crime is among the unsettling questions presented to the series’ viewers. Why would Avery kill Halbach? But what if he did?

For Baughman, who teaches criminal law, the documentary offered many questions that double as an ideal teaching tool. As the series quickly rose to pop culture phenomenon status, Baughman brainstormed how she could use criminal justice issues raised in the case to teach her law students about flaws in the legal process.

She created a new seminar course appropriately titled “Making a Murderer,” which debuted this semester. The class combines clips from the documentary, trial transcripts and other readings as an avenue for students to re-examine Avery’s two prosecutions and the prosecution of Dassey at every stage.

A jury convicted Avery in 2007. Dassey was also convicted, based on a confession during an interrogation process many who’ve viewed the series believe was unfair and coerced by police. Dassey’s conviction was overturned in 2016 by a federal judge who ruled that his constitutional rights were violated by police who coerced him into a confession. The judge ordered Dassey’s release from prison, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit blocked the order until an appeal could be heard. In December 2017, a panel of the Seventh Circuit voted to uphold Dassey’s original conviction. His case now awaits further appeal.

A host of other issues are raised throughout the documentary, Baughman notes, which makes it a gateway to exploring criminal law, criminal procedure, evidence, professional ethics, sentencing and appellate review.

Students enrolled in the course also argue motions, examine and cross-examine witnesses as a training exercise and conduct independent research.

“This is a really good case study of criminal justice in general and all of the problems we have — including tainting of juries, improper investigation, DNA evidence and contamination of evidence, prosecutorial ethics, when to change venues, ineffective counsel and many other issues,” said Baughman. “Using the case as a way to teach those topics is amazing.”

Baughman said students are also learning more about the case outside of what is shown in the Netflix documentary, which came under fire by some who argued it was biased in favor of Avery’s and Dassey’s alleged innocence in the crime.  (A new series by filmmaker Shawn Rech called “Convicting a Murderer” will more closely look at the prosecution’s side of the case and is set to air in the coming year. A second season of “Making a Murderer” will also launch later in 2018 on Netflix, in which Dassey’s life will be further deconstructed).

For example, students read telephone transcripts from Dassey not featured in the documentary that raise serious questions about his alleged innocence, Baughman said, and point more to the man’s possible participation in the crime.

Students enrolled in the class said it’s a departure from other classes at the College of Law and that they are enjoying the unique opportunity to delve more closely into the Netflix series from a legal perspective.

Third-year law student Mary Royal had heard the buzz around “Making of a Murderer” but hadn’t yet watched the series before she started Baughman’s class. She said she enjoys fierce debate among classmates over how the case played out.

“‘The Making a Murderer’ class is vastly different from any class I have previously taken at the law school. It allows us to have open and honest discussion about the justice system and the areas which are in desperate need of reform. Each week my friends and I gather together and watch the assigned episode of the documentary and discuss it together. It’s become our weekly ‘movie night’ tradition that we look forward to,” said Royal.

“The readings for the class are interesting as well. By being a part of professor Baughman’s class we have the opportunity to examine documents and information above and beyond the information the general public was provided in the Netflix documentary. Part of our assigned readings have been to take a close look at the motions, complaints and other legal documents that played an integral role in the Steven Avery cases,” she added.

Royal noted the class isn’t only for law students interested in criminal defense.

“While the class certainly does explore the issues present for a criminal defendant at trial, it does not ignore the role of a prosecutor and the need to create an ethical system where both sides are working toward the fulfillment of the rights guaranteed in the Constitution. As someone who has always connected more with the prosecutorial mindset I’ve found this class to be engaging and eye opening. It has allowed me to step outside of comfort zone and really understand issues from across the aisle,” she said.

Third-year law student Katey Pepin, who aspires to a career in criminal defense, said the course has been effective in helping students sort through complex criminal justice issues.

“’Making a Murderer’ came out during my first year of law school. I binge-watched the entire season and was fascinated by Avery’s case. Even my non-law school friends and family were watching and talking about the series, which was really cool. When I heard that the law school was going to offer a class based on the documentary, I knew that I wanted to be in that class,” said Pepin.

“The topic itself is very compelling. It’s shocking to hear about proven instances where the justice system has failed and it’s overwhelming to think about how many people are sitting in jail for crimes they have not committed. In this class, we not only get to discuss what went wrong, but we also get to explore what can be done in the future to ensure that this does not happen again,” she said.

Students in the class will receive an up-close and personal account of the case on April 5, when one of the defense attorneys in the case, Dean Strang, visits the S.J. Quinney College of Law. Strang, whose role in representing Avery is chronicled in the Netflix series, will discuss the case from his point of view and allow students to ask questions about the experience.

The chance to hear from Strang directly will be exciting, said Pepin.

“It’s thrilling to be able to learn about a case that received such a significant amount of media attention and is a case that is still ongoing,” she said.