There’s no denying the ascendance of podcasts in media has been closely related to the immense popularity of the true crime genre. Listeners cultishly swooned over Serial’s first season in a way they just never did for host Sarah Koenig’s many years of work on This American Life. Maybe it’s the egoism tickled by an invitation to solve a puzzle of consequence (where others – professionals – failed!), or maybe it’s the frequent salacious inclusion of violence and sexuality – we’ll leave the psychology of this popularity to others. What we have noticed and want to point out is that some true crime podcasts powerfully illuminate systemic issues in the criminal justice system, with implications far beyond the specific stories they tell. Here are a few that do it very well and what we especially liked about them.
APM’s “In the Dark” topped many “best podcasts” lists for both of its seasons, and with great reason. Reporter Madeleine Baran did an incredible job of morphing season one’s story of a missing and murdered child into a question about the lack of oversight and accountability of local law enforcement, particularly local sheriffs’ offices. But season two, about the frankly unbelievable Curtis Flowers Mississippi death penalty case (which we have written about several times) also rates as a stellar achievement. Bonus points to Baran for a terrific episode called “What Exactly Are Prosecutors Allowed to Do” – a question we here at Open File ask ourselves all the time – in which she interviews informant expert Alexandra Natapoff (whose recent NYT op ed is another media must.)
Natapoff also provides excellent analysis on problematic state use of informants in the Cincinnati Inquirer’s acclaimed “Accused” season two, in which informants were key to a wrongful conviction. The first season is also great, focusing on the pervasive issue of false confessions.
Two journalists we greatly admire, the Intercept’s Liliana Segura and Jordan Smith have recently launched a new podcast, only on its third episode as of this writing, Murderville, GA, which promises to do the same, taking a hard look at how racism and many other systemic factors may have led to a wrongful conviction in a small south Georgia town.
After starting the craze (some would say) with Serial season one, which initiated the now-seemingly permanent dinner table debate about Adnan Syed’s guilt and led directly to new legal movement in the case, Sarah Koenig came back this year with Serial’s astonishing season three, in which she and her team parked themselves in the Cuyahoga County and Cleveland Municipal Courts (aka ‘The Justice Center’) and watched what happened. Pretty much everything happened. The season contains heartbreaking juvenile cases, the constantly infuriating combination of arbitrariness in the application of justice and systemic discrimination, the back-breaking fines inflicted on poor people, the community’s frustration and so much more. In the city where police killed 12-year old Tamir Rice in a park while he was playing with a toy gun and the prosecutor convinced a grand jury not to bring charges, it’s important to listen to the stories coming through the Justice Center. If you only have time for one, may we recommend episode five, “Pleas baby pleas” which features the tagline “Don’t tell the judges, but the prosecutors have the most power in the building.” We won’t tell if you don’t. Happy listening!