I’ve been wondering about one possible outcome of the cultural turn, over the last decade, towards true crime representations of problematic prosecution procedures.
I’m thinking of podcasts like Serial or documentary film projects like The Staircase or Making a Murderer or the short Netflix film, Long Shot. Each of these productions draw audience attention away from the murdered person as the primary victim in the narrative. They develop compelling cases for the victimization of the accused defendants in these trials.
And while there have been cultural critics who have considered whether and how the current true crime cultural moment might provide more awareness for, or even provide an activist platform for, social justice work, as opposed to carceral justice, I am wondering about the impact on the individuals who might find themselves on the wrong end of a police interrogation.
In other words, much of the conversation around the recent trend in true crime documentation has been focused on the potential of collective activism to create change: the power of critical (audience) mass to overturn a bad conviction, or pressure the release of someone like Cyntoia Brown, or, ideally, encourage lawmakers or district attorneys to make wider, deeper policy changes.
But, what if these docu-series have another kind of impact on the ways individuals interact with police in interrogation rooms, or with their lawyers?
If they’ve paid attention to Adnan Syed’s case, or Cyntoia Brown’s case, or Juan Catalan’s case, will they be better equipped to resist the coercive or misleading practices of investigators?
So, I’ve been thinking of this as a kind of different anxious reason for watching true crime. From the first episode of Karen Kilgariff’s and Georgia Hardstark’s My Favorite Murder podcast, they emphasize that their obsession with stories of crime comes from their anxiety about becoming victims. They argue — as many other “fans” of true crime do, especially white women, as predominant victims in true crime discourse — that paying attention to narratives about crime is a kind of coping device as well as survival training for their own peace of mind.
If the watchword of this broader cultural moment — this post-2015 era, let’s say — is suspicion or mistrust, of our institutions, from justice systems to electoral politics to the free press, then perhaps it makes sense that the new “anxious true crime consumer” is not the (forgive me) potentially-murdered white woman, but the always-potentially wrongly accused?
[In reality, the dangers remain the same for victims and those accused. And I do not propose that any specific group here “deserves” more or less justice. The effect of narrative representations of crimes and justice on the experience of justice is an ongoing dilemma, one that this blog is engaging with from different perspectives and with different questions and hypotheses.]