True Crime Podcasts—Why are We Addicted?

It started with Serial—someone suggested I listen and within ten minutes I was addicted. I knew people listened to podcasts and thought I didn’t have the time…since then, I’ve found plenty; every time I’m driving alone, and they have replaced TV and music when I’m in the gym.

Serial was an eye opener—though I do some forensic perinatal work, my contact with the court is limited and virtually never with the police. For those who missed the phenomenon, Serial followed the case related to the murder of Hae Min Lee in 1999 and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Sayed—who courtesy of the podcast and the questions it raised, has been granted a retrial. It was well presented with Sara Koenig offering balance to a perhaps more invested Rabia Chaudry (she knew the defendant) but who was able to give insights into the town and being Muslim in small town America.

The first secret to their success was that it took you with them. Though much of it was going through prior investigations and trials, it was with fresh eyes and in real time had the promise of change—of righting a wrong.

The second secret was it turned out to be a compelling case with twists and turns, faulty technology reports, witnesses that recanted and changed stories and a legal system that was far from Perry Mason perfect. The twist that the hosts worked out from tapes was extraordinary. Fiction doesn’t get this good—or rather it wouldn’t have been believable if it hadn’t been real. And we were there when they did it.

The weakness was the same as the strength—real time meant we caught up and the law had slowed down to its frustratingly slow tedious self. Something that these podcasts as well as my own experience as an expert, has led me to believe desperately needs change.

Season Two I found less compelling, though it gave an insight into the military with Bowe Bergdahl going AWOL in Afghanistan. There were some interesting moments, some philosophical questions—but at the end of the day the military should never have enlisted him and he should never have joined if he wasn’t prepared to take orders. For me, there was not the same ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. Perhaps there would have been if I’d been in a military family.

Season Three has taken a different approach—Sara Koenig and new offsider Emmanuelle Dzotsi (who is apparently from Ohio but sounds very English)—spend time in a Cleveland court. After Season Two I’d stopped listening but then found myself at a loose end and started this, and thought I wouldn’t continue because multiple superficial cases held little appeal. To my surprise its kept me engrossed. Its like being beamed into a different universe—the life of petty crime and autocratic judges who think they know best and to hell with best-practice evidence. At times its almost funny (if not so horrendous) and often sad. Its also an eye opener—insights into the downhill slide for poor black men especially, being forced into guilty pleas to misdemeanour  to save risk, only to have fines mount and then real charges and gaol time become inevitable.

Rabia Chaudry who was one of the lawyers involved in the first Serial series subsequently wrote a book about Adnan Sayed (who was a family friend) and then joined with two other lawyers in another podcast series—Undisclosed. They’ve gone through the cases of Gary Mitchum (a murdered barwoman who was his on/off partner) and Joey Watkins (a driveby shooting) and now are onto Dennis Perry—a case of a church shooting and murder of the pastor and his wife. This is the least interesting of the three—it was along time ago and most of the notes and tapes have been lost and the witnesses changing testimony hard to fathom after so many years.

Speaking of which—memory and witness description, a common problem in these cases, I tested myself out. I saw a group of four at dinner, then saw them again the next morning at breakfast. I’d spent a bit of time looking at one of the guys—thought he would have passed for Nick Cave’s brother. I looked away and a minute later described the other three; two of my descriptions would have fitted half the middle aged population and the other I got her hair colour wrong and though I said glasses, omitted that the glasses were BRIGHT red. Some of these people got less of a look than I had, and were being asked after a much longer period of time…

Along the way (after diverging to S-Town, well worth it, and a sort of crime), I started another series—Truth and Justice. Bob Ruff, ex-fireman, is kind of like Bruce Willis character in the Die Hard series. Heart of gold and rough around the edges. He started out with following Series with updates on Adnan Sayed, then Kenny Snow, Edward Ates (Elnora Griffin murder), Jesse Eldridge (Keow Gove murder), George Powell III which I missed, West Memphis 3 (there is also a movie) and currently Season 6: The Melgars where Sandy is convicted of murdering her husband.

In the middle of watching these Australia got on the band wagon. Phoebe’s Fall was followed by Trace (now also a book), The Teacher’s Pet and Wrong Skin. There’s another one that does an episode per case which hasn’t captivated me (though there was a thoughtful episode where the mother of a murder victim made a good case about who owns the court information). Of course there was my own involvement in the Keli Lane documentary which I also wrote about for ABC, here. That, like Making a Murderer had  high viewer ratings—more evidence of our true crime addiction.

My interest is flagging though.

There is, eventually, a common thread, across cases, across countries. Justice is not what I had naively thought it to be—it has different faces depending on your colour, which state you live in (I should know this—NSW is much more likely to give long sentences for child murder versus community service for Infanticide in the Victoria, and it varies wildly in the USA) and how much money you have. It can rest on how smart or biased the police or DA or judge is, or whether they are having a bad day. In USA if you’re unlucky you’re the case the DA or police chief will use to ensure they get voted in. At least we don’t have that in Australia. Perhaps the worst part is how even well meaning people can be so certain…of things you just can’t be certain of. And even a smart sounding DA in the Melgar case just didn’t seem to be aware of some gross inconsistencies. These cases are complicated and of course the podcast hosts aren’t necessarily right—but what they show is how easily a case can go one way or the other. As happened in the Keli Lane case, a smart prosecutor out to win (more so, arguably, than for the truth), can sway a jury.

The feeling of being part of something happening and changing gets swamped with the realisation that so much needs changing and little is being done about it, as well as what I’m sure criminal defence lawyers suffer all the time—compassion burnout. There is also this increasing conviction that things are never black and white, and that the only person who can ever be truly know if they did it or not, is the person charged. In the Melgar case, given Sandy had medical causes for loss of memory and consciousness, maybe in some cases, not even then. Hopefully this helps people be more tolerant, less likely to opt for mandatory sentences and (in the USA) the death penalty. Its likely to make for better informed juries—let’s also hope that enough law enforcement people listen and also ask how can we stop this and how can we make things better?

I will continue to listen, though maybe more selectively. For me the interest comes from humanising the millions we hear are locked away in USA prisons and gives sense to a group that in many other ways is often not sympathetic. The podcast hosts choose carefully—no one wants to set someone free and have them kill again because you got it wrong—but Serial 3 has managed to show the petty crime and unlikeable characters in context, surely journalism at its best and certainly what I want to do in my psychological thrillers. I guess for me, also, these podcasts given me food for thought in future books.

There’s a prurient interest too, I’m sure—fiction crime readers like to read to assay and allay their fears of what the news bombards them with, in a way that they know the hero/ine will win through (and they will survive!). True Crime podcasts take you a step closer to the real action, but still from the safety of your own home—even more than fiction we all get to be the detective (my husband kept telling me that people on Twitter thought I had it wrong on Keli Lane—I said there was  reasonable doubt—and they may be right…but I had read all the case notes and spent four hours interviewing her. Had they?). The only problem is that these are real people, real tragedies. The dead person is still dead, the families are still grieving and the convicted person is still in gaol (and if wrongly, the true culprit is at large). We need to remind ourselves of that.



About annebuist

Anne Buist is the Chair of Women’s Mental Health at the University of Melbourne and has 30 clinical and research experience in perinatal psychiatry. She works with Protective Services and the legal system in cases of abuse, kidnapping, infanticide and murder. Medea’s Curse is her first mainstream psychological thriller. Professor Buist is married to novelist Graeme Simsion and has two children.
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