This article originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2016 issue of Carolina Law.
For criminal defense attorney Jerry Buting ’81, being prepared for the unexpected turns of a trial is part of his day-to-day life. But no amount of research and planning could prepare him for the turn his life would take when he was featured in the popular Netflix 10-part documentary, “Making a Murderer,” in December.
The documentary chronicles the story of a Wisconsin man, Steven Avery, who served 18 years in prison for sexual assault and attempted murder before being exonerated in 2003. In 2005, Avery was arrested for the murder of a local photographer, Teresa Halbach. The series covers Avery’s arrest, prosecution and conviction in 2007. Buting and fellow defense attorney, Dean Strang, have been thrust into the limelight based on their work featured in the series.
“It has surprised me. As I look back on the series, we didn’t do anything any other good criminal defense attorney wouldn’t do,” says Buting, who receives thousands of emails from around the world and says he can’t walk half a block in New York without getting stopped.
Buting was interested in criminal law long before attending UNC School of Law. He was a forensic studies major at Indiana University but was interested in the substantive aspect of criminal law and procedure. “I knew I wanted to work with individual people as my clients and criminal law would allow me to do that,” says Buting.
While he didn’t know anyone in North Carolina, he had an affinity for the state where his mother was born. Buting visited law schools at Duke and Wake Forest before ultimately deciding on UNC. He was elected class president during his first year and was involved with the North Carolina Journal of International Law for a year. To actively support gender equality, Buting was also one of the only male members of the student organization Women in Law.
It was his experience with the law school’s clinical program that had the biggest impact on him personally and professionally. “I was able to work with real clients on a string of cases in several counties—Orange, Wake and Durham,” says Buting. “It was great exposure.”
His time in the clinics also introduced him to the prisons in North Carolina, an experience that would serve him well in his chosen career. He remembers the stark contrast between the bullet-riddled glass of Central Prison and the long halls of the Butner Federal Correctional Complex — both sending the psychological message that he was entering a different kind of world.
His first summer job during law school was a study on whether the death penalty was applied fairly in homicide cases. Buting and other students studied every homicide case in North Carolina for a one-year period to determine what made a case a capital offense. The study ultimately showed that the designation was dependent on the prosecutor and the county.
After law school, Buting had hoped to stay in North Carolina working as a public defender, but at that time staffed public defender programs were in the infancy stage with five offices in the state and no open positions. Buting still applied for a position and studied for the bar in North Carolina but ultimately was recruited to join the public defender program in Wisconsin. He met his future wife, another public defender, on his first day on the job. Since then he has called Brookfield, Wisc., home and opened Buting, Williams & Stillings, S.C., a criminal defense firm specializing in difficult or challenging cases.
The Steven Avery case featured in the documentary has propelled Buting and the overall criminal justice system into the spotlight. The series raises a number of questions Buting hopes will lead to discussions within the law community about the legality of interrogating a juvenile without the parents’ knowledge and whether or not prosecutors should be allowed to hold press conferences prior to jury selection. He also hopes the series will educate people on the importance of jury duty and the fact that it shouldn’t be seen as an inconvenience.
“By not providing an education process on serving or a reasonable wage for people to serve, decisions will be made by people who don’t necessarily represent the cross section of a community,” Buting says.
With so many television shows and movies depicting defense lawyers as villains, Buting is pleased the documentary is presenting a different view. “There aren’t really any defense lawyer role models,” says Buting. “I hope people will see that you can do your job ethically, honestly, with integrity and represent your client. I am humbled by it.”
Buting has been married for 26 years and has two children in their 20s. He says he is grounded in his Catholic faith and
his calling to defend his clients in an honest way – his driving motivator.
His advice to other alumni or students embarking on their law careers: “Follow your heart. Try to make a difference in whatever way you can, whether that is through law, church or community work.”
-May 5, 2016