You’ve seen television shows like 48 Hours and Dateline, and heard the hype about the Netflix docu-series Making a Murderer. And if you didn’t listen to it, you likely at least know of the podcast Serial. These shows target a growing community of people who all share one common interest: true crime. These people, often referred to as “crime junkies,” are fascinated by cold cases and unsolved murders. In the past they have digested the content via written narratives or TV shows. But in recent years, a new wave of journalism, podcasting, has come on the air, creating a virtual gathering space for those who want criminals to see justice.
Podcasts are digital, episodic media. They’re downloaded from sources like Spotify, iHeartRadio and Apple Podcasts and streamed on smartphones or computers. One of the big appeals of this form of storytelling is that it can be carried everywhere without any effort; people listen while they exercise, cook, and drive. Topics range from two people casually talking about wrestling, or why people like eating extremely spicy food, to psychologists distilling years of experience into 30-minute anecdotes. As of June 2019, there are more than 750,000 different podcasts online and more than 30 million episodes. Podcast Insights reports that 51 percent of the United States population has listened to a podcast, and individual listeners digest an average of seven episodes per week. And the numbers are still growing, especially in the young adult audience—according to Edison Research, “41 percent of monthly podcast listeners say they are listening to more podcasts today compared to one year ago.”
There are currently more than 100 true crime podcasts available for streaming. They are often produced by seasoned investigative journalists who end up being assisted throughout their storytelling by audience members using the internet and other new age technologies to help advance or solve crimes. While many podcasts simply tell stories, others actually solve cases that have been cold for decades. Some even influence the cases of the wrongfully-convicted. It’s becoming a cultural phenomenon that not only entertains listeners but also makes a real impact on the justice system.
Take the first season of Serial, for instance. It hooked listeners when it was released in 2014 and garnered more than five million downloads on iTunes quicker than any other podcast in the history of the platform. Produced by This American Life’s Sarah Koenig, the podcast investigates the 1999 murder of 18-year-old Baltimore student Hae Min Lee. Hae’s boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the crime in February 2000 and was given a life sentence while steadfastly maintaining his innocence. He sat hopelessly in prison for 14 years before Sarah and her team began investigating his case for their podcast, which introduced new evidence and interviews that left people questioning the integrity of the original investigation. In fact, Serial garnered so much attention with such compelling information that Adnan was granted a second trial in 2016. Serial also a huge reason why podcasts in general have become so popular, and the true crime genre can basically trace its birth back to this one show. The effect it had on pop culture was so great that HBO recently released a docu-series covering Adnan’s case and the major influence Serial had.
The true crime obsession might seem odd to some. After all, listening to the details of sometimes gruesome murders doesn’t sound like a whole lot of fun. Some crime junkies liken true crime podcasts to horror movies and the thrill they get from being scared. Others are fascinated with the reality of the content that seems it should be found in the pages of a fictional novel. The appeal is similar to that of a train wreck—it’s terrible to see, but hard to look away. It’s also not new. Cases like the Black Dahlia, Jack the Ripper, the Fatty Arbuckle Scandal and the Lindbergh Kidnapping illustrate that ours has long been a culture captivated by heinous crimes. Technology has simply created new platforms for sharing information, leading to the rise of “armchair detectives” who try to solve cold cases over the internet, and crime junkies tune in to podcasts that chronicle cases old and new, hoping for fresh avenues of investigation.
Even more intriguing is that some of the stories in true crime podcasts have taken place in our own backyard; there are at least eight true crime series that are produced in Texas. Sinisterhood, which is narrated by Dallas comedians Heather McKinney and Christie Wallace, dissects conspiracy theories, serial killers and unsolved murders. Christine is an attorney by day, bringing a unique perspective that sets this series apart from the rest; it’s even been listed in the top 10 podcasts on iTunes. Texas 10-31, produced by Houston-based Cassie Jackson and Hannah Cooper, investigates lesser-known crimes in Texas and aims to educate audiences on the larger factors at play in many of the scenarios they discuss, such as mental illness or flaws in the legal system. Similarly, Eric Nichols of Fort Worth’s All Crime, No Cattle series says that her show has provided an outlet to speak about the horrors or rape and murder that have been tabboo to discuss in the past.
Accused is another popular true crime podcast with two seasons out now and a third in the works, produced by Cincinnati Enquirer investigative journalist Amber Hunt and photographer Amanda Rossmann. Season one examined the 1978 murder of Elizabeth Andes and the weakness of the case that followed. Neither Amber nor Amanda set out to join the podcasting world; they were originally assigned the story as a written piece but changed the format to a podcast when they realized how much good audio they had gathered from interviews. There weren’t many other newspaper-produced podcasts out there when Accused was first released in 2016, and they were the first true crime podcast to reach number one on iTunes.
“We certainly hoped we could make a difference in the case, but never set out to garner as many listeners that we did,” Amber says. “I think people like the podcast so much because they can tell we are sincere. We aren’t in it for ourselves.”
Amber says she is a human first and a journalist second. The nature of the content in these shows can be so sensitive that it must be handled with the utmost responsibly, carefully following journalism ethics. At the start of each project, she hangs a picture of the victim on her wall. It reminds her of her purpose.
“I’m not trying to clear someone’s name,” Amber says. “I am just trying to find out what actually happened.”
Though many listeners binge an entire series (which can consist of anywhere from 10–20 episodes) on one road trip, podcasts of this nature can take anywhere from six months to several years to produce as journalists are often faced with a lack of cooperation from many sides. Law enforcement officials rarely jump at the opportunity to get involved with projects like these because they feel defensive of the suggestion that they didn’t get it right the first time around. They typically aren’t helpful in obtaining things like search warrants or subpoenas, causing progress on podcast investigations to slow and sometimes even come to a halt. Law enforcement officials even attempted to shut down the first season production of Accused, saying they hadn’t had time to investigate fully for themselves, even though the crime occurred more than 35 years ago.
Family members of the parties involved in these cases are often hesitant to be interviewed as well. For cases that are considered closed but are being investigated for wrongful conviction, the families of the victims are typically pretty upset by the idea that the person incarcerated for the crime is not the one responsible. For cold cases, some loved ones are just not interested in dredging up the painful past. It can be hard for the victims’ families to relive the misery they experienced, no matter how long ago it was.
Other families, however, are desperate for the help. The mother of a man sitting in a prison cell who insists he is innocent would do anything to get someone to take a second look at her son’s case. Families who have been waiting years for answers in a cold case involving a loved one’s murder hope that podcasters can help find the person responsible since law enforcement did not.
The family of Jennifer Harris shares that hope. Jennifer was just 29 years old when she was murdered in her hometown of Bonham, Texas 17 years ago, and the case has been cold ever since. Her car was abandoned on the side of the road, and her nude body was found floating in the Red River six days later. The initial suspects were her ex-husband and ex-boyfriend, but both denied being involved and neither was ever arrested. No one has been held accountable for taking a life from this world and stealing a soul from her loved ones.
Jennifer’s family hasn’t given up the fight of finding justice, but they’ve already done so much without a resolution. Not only has private investigator Daryl Parker been on the case for more than a decade, but 48 Hours even filmed a special on the case. Daryl and the family, pretty certain they know who did it, think that a podcast about Jennifer’s death could help find more evidence in the matter that would put an end to the nightmare they have lived since May 2002.
The theory is that the more exposure a case gets, someone who knows something will eventually come forward. Daryl says he has seen true crime podcasts make a difference in cases time and time again. Ben Spencer, for example, says he is innocent but has been sitting in a Texas prison since being convicted of an aggravated robbery in 1987. There was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime, but he was given a life sentence on the basis of eyewitness testimony. After Barb Bradley Hagerty with The Atlantic produced a podcast about the case and shed light on new evidence, the new Dallas district attorney is taking another look to determine if the conviction should be overturned.
Stirring up the seedy pasts of potential criminals does pose a risk for those steering the ship. In many cold cases, the murderer is still out there. Sometimes, suspects who have not been convicted are so concerned with spreading their version of the story that they actually want to be interviewed. Some even seek podcasters out when they find out that someone is looking into the case.
“To them, podcasters represent someone they can tell their lies to who don’t have any authority to do anything about it,” Daryl says. “But sometimes, in those lies is buried a nugget of truth that can change everything. That is why these podcasts can be so powerful.”
So why are investigative journalists and people sitting at home on their couches able to drum up more evidence than seasoned law enforcement officials are? For one, there is typically some level of bias involved in the formal investigation, and oftentimes the “guilty until proven innocent” concept makes an appearance. Podcasts also have the advantage of numbers—they can generate new tips even years after a crime has been committed and forgotten about by a community; since podcasters typically interview more people than law enforcement does, there is an opportunity for more connections to be made. The hope is that someone, somewhere knows something, and that they will hear the podcast and speak up. Amber Hunt is cautiously optimistic that it will happen for the cases in her podcasts—though Accused hasn’t put out any new content in about two years, they still garner more than 200,000 downloads each month.
The true crime podcast phenomenon has the potential to do a lot of good. It highlights vital issues like evidence retention and confirmation bias that many may not even know exist. Hopefully, shedding light on some sloppy investigations will encourage the next generation of law enforcement officials to handle these cases a bit differently in the future. The ultimate goal, however, is to get justice for the victims and some sort of peace for the people who loved them.