Jack the Ripper. Jeffrey Dahmer. The Black Dahlia. The Green River Killer. The Lindbergh Baby.
We are obsessed with true crime and the killers that drive it, from the penny dreadfuls of the late 1800s to the flashy multimedia presentations of today, like Making a Murderer, currently riveting Netflix viewers and taking social media by storm. It follows hard on the heels of the critically acclaimed ‘Serial,’ the podcast exploring old and closed cases that the producers think might merit a second look. Last year, the series evaluated the story of Adnan Syed, accused of killing his girlfriend in 1999, while this season probes into the mysterious case of Bowe Berghdal.
In 2015, HBO ran The Jinx, a series criticized for being somewhat elastic with timeline and storytelling, but one that still integrated a wide variety of narrative techniques and styles to tell a complicated and intriguing story. The programme asks what really happened in the case of accused killer Robert Durst, exploring the subject through interviews, reconstructions, archival material, and more. A twist at the end startled viewers, bringing an air of the deeply theatrical to an already suspenseful programme.
True crime documentaries and dramatisations aren’t new. In 2006, Black Dahlia fictionalised the 1947 death of Elizabeth Short, while Monster’s Ball took on the case of Aileen Wuornos, a serial killer made famous because of her gender, in 2001. Werner Herzog explored crime and punishment in 2011 with Into the Abyss, and In Cold Blood (1966) remains one of Truman Capote’s most famous works, reflecting years of painstaking research and reconstruction.
True crime has always performed well in pop culture, whether probing into unsolved cases or profiling famous killers. Now, more and more, we’re seeing stories about possible mistrials, frame jobs, and other miscarriages of justice. Making a Murderer and Serial both touched upon wrongful conviction, with Making a Murderer in particular accusing law enforcement officers of framing its subject. In the midst of the cultural obsession with police procedural shows, in which a body of the week followed by swift apprehension of a criminal is the norm, the continued fascination with these kinds of programmes is remarkable — especially since the fictional version of law enforcement often involves fudging facts, unfairly profiling people, and coming to hasty conclusions (and that’s just on the part of the heroes eager to land a conviction).
It’s possible that the growing interest in true crime that questions past convictions could reflect an indictment of the justice system. Such programmes must perforce require interrogating the faith that people have in law enforcement, government agencies, and authorities — they show people being badgered into confessions, imply that evidence has been fabricated or manipulated, and more. The picture they paint is not one of thoughtful, rigorous investigation, but one of shoddy work designed to yield quick results that will satisfy investigators and allow them to close cases. They raise the fear that for the viewer, the same thing could happen to them.
Essentially, the subjects of these documentaries are being given second trials in the court of public opinion. They’re often very willing participants, sometimes volunteering to speak to journalists after years of silence, and their friends and family members participate as well. The desire for media attention is as everpresent as the adoration of true crime, with many obsessed with being subjects of pop culture, household names on everyone’s lips. Few people, for example, had heard or cared about Adnan Syed before ‘Serial.’ Yet, their participation clearly isn’t just motivated by the desire for fleeting fame. Some seem to believe that journalists will call attention to their cases, potentially forcing a new trial that could trigger exoneration when they’ve exhausted conventional methods for appeals.
This may work against them, oddly enough, as media has a strong influence on juries. In some cases, that influence is the very reason why trials go so badly — even when moved to another court to address community knowledge of a case, a trial can still include jurors who are aware of the issue, and who may be coloured by that awareness during deliberations. When the media blares about critical trials and major crimes, the losers are often the accused, who need impartial, unbiased peers, not people who have been reading about their wrongdoing for weeks on end.
Similarly, true crime media like this might seem at first glance like a good thing, drawing attention to cases that may have been unjust and triggering pressure to retry or even vacate convictions altogether. Already, petitions surrounding the subjects of programmes like ‘Serial’ and Making a Murderer are being targeted at the White House (which can only issue federal pardons, something many appear unaware of) as well as law enforcement agencies and governors (the ones actually in a position to address pardon petitions, for the most part). Should these cases go to retrial, though, the obsessive focus on them in the media could hurt rather than harm, as many jurors may have tried and decided them long before their jury summons ever arrive, and the presentation of evidence in court may not make much of a difference, no matter how meticulously structured and discussed.
The fascination with true crime in pop culture represents a larger fascination with the gruesome, the macabre, the gory, and the recent skew towards indictments of falsification of evidence and unfair convictions would seem on the surface to represent a culture shift. It is perhaps one brought about by growing awareness of social issues and judicial inequalities — though notably these programmes have focused on white protagonists, thus in a way reiterating and reinforcing the notion that white people are wrongfully imprisoned while people of colour are not — but it may in the end have the ironic consequence of making it harder to hold fair retrials.