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23 September 2022

True crime’s legal pay-offs give it a righteous gloss – but it’s still only shallow, manipulative entertainment

The thrill of the genre is that it lends a factual story a dramatic twist. In fact, it is as subjective as fiction – only with real-word victims.

By Emily Bootle

On 30 August the New South Wales Supreme Court found Chris Dawson, 74, guilty of murdering his wife, Lynette, in 1982. At the time Dawson was having an affair with a high school student he taught named JC. The court heard that in January 1982 Dawson picked up JC and told her: “Lyn’s gone, she’s not coming back, come back to Sydney and help look after the kids and live with me.” He has not yet been sentenced.

Before the case was reopened the murder of Lynette, whose body was never found, was the topic of a chart-topping podcast in 2018 called The Teacher’s Pet, by the Australian journalist Hedley Thomas. In it, Thomas exposed the failings of police and prosecutors, who did not charge Dawson at the time despite coroner’s reports that Lynette was most probably dead and that he was a suspect. His conviction is not only vindication for Lynette and her friends and family, but for the podcast’s dedicated following.

The Teacher’s Pet is striking because often the cases featured in true crime dramas take the opposite trajectory: they question the validity of existing convictions. In December 2019 Curtis Flowers was freed 23 years after he was accused of shooting dead four people a shop in Winona, Mississippi, following revelations by the podcast In The Dark. And this week, Adnan Syed, who was convicted of murdering Hae Min Lee, a fellow high school student, in 1999, had his conviction overturned because the state failed to share crucial evidence that may have led to his acquittal; he has not been found innocent, but has been released him on house arrest while prosecutors decide whether to seek a retrial. The case was brought to mainstream attention by Sarah Koenig’s 2014 podcast Serial, the original viral “true crime” hit to pick over a gruesome case in detail and cast doubt on the verdict.

As the genre boomed following the success of Serial, more and more people began to feel they were equipped to reach a conclusion on complex murder cases: solving crime was no longer the preserve of police officers, lawyers and conspiracy theorists, but a hobby for anyone who had listened to a podcast. In 2015 true crime fever got even more serious with Netflix’s Making a Murderer, a ten-episode series following the story of Steven Avery, who was convicted of the murder of the photographer Teresa Halbach in 2005. It made for addictive, shocking viewing; it raised the possibility that police had tampered with evidence to frame Avery, who had been wrongly convicted of rape in the 1980s and served almost two decades in prison.

[See also: From Serial to Making a Murderer: can true crime as entertainment ever be ethical?

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Making A Murderer was not particularly divisive: most viewers thought Avery was innocent. Yet, as Bronwen Dickey pointed out in Slate, “editing almost 700 hours of material into a taut 10-hour narrative for prime time… necessitates abundant manipulation”. There was a clear alternative narrative being pushed – so the new consensus that Avery, who remains in prison, didn’t do it couldn’t be trusted either.

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This is so often the trajectory of a true crime documentary. We are presented with a shocking story – one which would be lurid and interesting even if it were a clear-cut case. Alongside that story we are promised new evidence, secrets uncovered and sudden twists. And so an alternative narrative – which is by its nature exciting, compelling and often asks us to root for the underdog – eventually becomes the more dominant one. Circulated and exaggerated on social media thousands of times, this theory is surely as subjective and incomplete as the established narrative. As works of journalism Serial and Making a Murderer were entitled to cast doubt on the validity of the verdicts they examined. But, in the internet age, that doubt is swiftly replaced by a new, conspiratorial certainty.

True crime is not just about revealing information to us, but making us feel like we’ve uncovered it ourselves. These narratives function in our minds in the same way as fictional ones, where part of the appeal is spotting the clues and figuring out the inevitable twist. The genius of true crime is not only in finding a particularly interesting story – which Serial, Making a Murderer and The Teacher’s Pet clearly did – but in weaving it in a particular way, just as a thriller-writer does, dropping titbits of information at just the right time and making the listener or viewer feel like they are figuring it out on their own. Just as the best fictional narratives make us feel like the authors, true crime makes us feel like the detective – and therefore even more invested in the rightness of our opinion. (The Netflix hit The Staircase, a similarly compulsive watch about a man on trial for murdering his wife, was recently turned into a drama starring Colin Firth, demonstrating the propensity for these stories to be manipulated and retold.)

Though the force of public opinion can clearly have positive effects – not only in cases such as Syed’s and Dawson’s but in the recent conservatorship case involving Britney Spears – the somewhat hysterical atmosphere, and obsessive analysis on online platforms such as Reddit, can also have a profound effect on those who are actually involved in the case, such as the victims’ families. Before Syed’s conviction was overturned, Hae Min Lee’s brother Young told the court: “This is not a podcast for me. It’s real life that will never end.” Halbach’s family declined to speak to the Making a Murderer producers and released a statement following the second season in 2018 that said: “Having just passed the ten-year anniversary of the death of our daughter and sister, Teresa, we are saddened to learn that individuals and corporations continue to create entertainment and to seek profit from our loss.”

True crime may have been shown to have a real-world impact on the cases it depicts, but ultimately it is popular because of its effects on the viewers. It makes us feel smarter, like we’re in on the truth, like we know better, like we’re beating the system. It’s the same superiority we feel when we watch reality TV: look at these idiots making fools of themselves, we think, as we sit in the privacy of our living rooms. For all its gory details, true crime almost creates a cocooning effect, a kind of murder-based hygge. As consumers we feel we are both thrillingly inside and comfortingly outside the event, watching and wondering at our leisure. But the development in the case of Adnan Syed – who may or may not be innocent – should serve as a reminder that some people aren’t simply watching and wondering. They don’t have a choice but to live it.

[See also: Nick Cave’s second coming

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