Long before he became a household name as Steven Avery’s lawyer in the Netflix true crime series Making a Murderer, Jerry Buting was treasurer for “Ass Kickers, Inc.” — a consortium of hard-partying college pals, responsible for some of the wildest parties Indiana University has ever seen.
You’ll find this and other personal revelations early on in Buting’s forthcoming book, Illusion of Justice: Inside Making a Murder and America’s Broken System, which hits bookstores Feb. 28. What you won’t find, however, are any of Buting’s theories on who may have killed Teresa Halbach, the young photographer Avery was convicted of killing.
“I don’t want to just announce in a book or on stage at a talk [the name of] somebody who doesn’t have a right to defend themselves,” Buting tells PEOPLE, who says doing so could lead to a lawsuit for slander.
“We filed a list of people we thought could be raised as other potential suspects. Some of those people I thought were legitimate suspects, but they were never investigated by police even though they had information that should have caused them to be interviewed right away. We did what we could to present that evidence in court, but the judge wouldn’t let us go there.”
Buting admits he has seen theories from fans of the show on sites like Reddit — and that he is impressed.
“People are very smart,” he says. “There are some crazy ideas out there, but people seem to be very educated and thoughtful in their analysis. If two minds are better than one, 1,000,000 minds are better than two. People have different perspectives, and it is interesting to read their theories, which are close to what we thought happened at the time.”
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The 10-part documentary series that catapulted Buting into the pop culture lexicon left true crime fans craving more — and left many convinced Avery was framed by law enforcement allegedly bent on exacting revenge for a lawsuit settlement Avery obtained.
Buting’s book uses Avery’s case as a jumping off point for a wider critique of what Buting depicts as a flawed criminal justice system.
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“Making a Murderer was a wake-up call for people about what happens in their courts, but it shouldn’t be taken as an isolated example,” Buting says. “Not every single case do you see that sort of thing, but there are too many where you do see the same flaws. If documentaries came about other these other cases, people would be outraged. We need to take back your justice system, but it will have to come from the ground up if there will ever be reforms in our justice system. People will have to say ‘We expect more and we need it to change.'”
Buting says lawmakers will not make the necessary fixes on their own, and that public pressure is important.
“They respond to their constituents, so if people are unhappy enough, that’s how change gets made,” he says.
Noting the recent protests in the wake of January’s presidential inauguration, Buting says he’s optimistic that people will make their voices heard.
“This is like 1968 and God help us if that’s really where we are,” Buting tells PEOPLE. “People are unhappy. I’d like to see it channeled better; there shouldn’t be looting and people setting cars on fire. But it does show a populist movement that is unhappy with the way things have been going and they want things to change. If leaders can rise up and use that in a positive way, in much the same way Martin Luther King Jr. did and Robert Kennedy tried to do, then I think we can see some changes made.”
He adds: “Too often, our justice system is an illusion. You hire the cheapest lawyer you can get and they stand next to you and pretend that justice is being served.”
Avery was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault in 1985. That conviction was later overturned. But Avery was subsequently convicted and sentenced to life for Halbach’s murder. Avery vigorously maintains his innocence and believes he was framed in retribution for filing a $36 million lawsuit against the county and authorities, which he ultimately settled for $400,000.
The prosecution’s case against Avery was buoyed by a confession provided to police by his teenage nephew, described in the 10-part series as learning disabled. In several interrogations portrayed as dubious in the docuseries, the nephew, Brendan Dassey, implicated both himself and Avery in Halbach’s slaying, telling investigators he even helped his uncle dispose of her remains.
Dassey was convicted in 2007 of homicide, sexual assault, and mutilation of a corpse. During Dassey’s trial, his attorneys argued that detectives pressured the confused teen into signing fabricated statements. His conviction was overturned last summer, but he remains in prison while the state appeals his release.
Buting’s book provides insight into what he and co-counsel Dean Strang experienced during their defense of Avery. Buting’s daughter, for instance, was taunted at school by the children of people who were convinced of Avery’s guilt. Buting also discusses his disdain for Ken Kratz, the man who handled Avery’s prosecution.
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In his book, Buting also reveals he was unsure, at first, about taking on Avery’s case, thinking the work load might be too much; the lifelong runner spent years battling a rare form of cancer that affected the tissue in his right leg. He writes that without his law partner and life partner, wife Kathleen Stilling, Buting would not have been able to represent Avery. Stilling, he writes, took on their entire law firm’s caseload so that Buting could focus exclusively on Avery’s case.
In addition, the book answers a number of questions Buting says he encounters all the time from Making a Murderer fans.
“Some people ask me, ‘Why didn’t you stick with him and represent him on appeal?’ It had nothing to do with money. It’s a quirk of law in Wisconsin. Almost always, the trial attorney gets off the case after a conviction. You need a fresh set of eyes for the appeal process. He needed an appeals lawyer. Once he hired someone to handle his appeal, we are barred from even talking to Steven.”
Of course, Buting also provides behind-the-scenes details about the Netflix series in his book, but is not sure the filmmakers behind the docuseries, Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos, will feature him or Strang in the upcoming second season.
For instance, there is interview footage that was recorded after Avery’s sentencing that was not used in the first 10 episodes that could surface in the next 10.
“We don’t know if we will be in the second season, but they’ve interviewed us,” he says. “We are waiting to see what develops in court, to show a more complete story. That will happen whether me or Dean are involved. But it’s not a finished product yet.”
Illusion of Justice: Inside Making a Murder and America’s Broken System is available for pre-order here and hits book stores on February 28.