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Acorn's 'Dear Murderer' Makes for a Good Story and Sometime Docudrama
January 22, 2018  | By David Hinckley

Dear Murderer is likely to have somewhat less celebrity sizzle in the U.S. than it did last summer in its native New Zealand. It’s still an entertaining look at practicing law on a tightrope.

Dear Murderer, which becomes available Monday on the streaming service Acorn (www.acorn.tv), dramatizes the story of Michael Bungay (Mark Mitchinson, top), one of the most flamboyant lawyers in 20th century New Zealand.

Think some combination of F. Lee Bailey, William Kunstler or Johnny Cochran. Bungay was an unconventional queen’s counsel (QC) who defended often wildly unpopular clients and sometimes got them off.

He was also at times an unguided missile outside the courtroom, an entertaining raconteur who did not apologize for behaving in ways that tested the traditional code of staid lawyering.

The title of the series, for instance, comes from a letter he sent to a former client – one who was convicted of murder despite Bungay’s efforts.

The client, hearing Bungay had suffered a heart attack, wrote him a short letter expressing the wish he would die. Bungay impulsively dashed off a reply note that began “Dear Murderer” and went on to say that Bungay was about to enjoy fine wine, some filets and an Oceanside vacation. It concluded by adding, “What are you doing?”

The five-part TV series covers Bungay’s whole 58-year life, including his unlikely path to the law after a childhood in which he had a good heart, but at times seemed unlikely to end up in any respectable profession at all.

It shows him in line to register for university and deciding to take law courses instead of medical courses by a flip of a coin.

He had a commanding personality that tended to make people either admire or loathe him, and he didn’t seem too concerned with which side most people came down on.

His in-court skills included a talent for presenting alternative explanations for scenarios in which his clients appeared to be guilty.

In the famous Minnitt murder case, for instance, a husband had killed his wife with a shotgun after an argument. Bungay convinced the jury that the man was provoked because his wife had ridiculed his sexual skills. The client was acquitted of murder and given four years on the lesser count of manslaughter.

The case that initially made Bungay’s reputation had broader implications. In 1975 he successfully defended New Zealand diplomat William Sutch on charges Sutch was passing state secrets to Russia’s KGB.

Sutch died later that year, and four decades later his guilt or innocence is still debated in New Zealand, with most folks believing he did it. 

Mitchinson’s Bungay comes across as unfiltered and more than a little eccentric, though a brilliant strategic attorney. Dear Murderer is based on a book written by his second wife, Ronda, and it should probably surprise no one that the series itself immediately sparked a controversy in New Zealand.

Bungay’s two daughters from his first marriage called it fiction that got him almost laughably wrong.

Here in the States, to be honest, we’ll probably take it as a good story.

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