5 Unhelpful Reactions To Serial And Other True Crime Media.

 

The internet is awesome! It’s revolutionised communication and created social circles that include people from countries across the globe. Now, pretty much everybody gets a seat at the table. No matter how unique or obscure your interest, online you’re bound to find hundreds of others that share your passion. Seriously, it’s more than just porn, you guys! Before the internet, you were pretty much limited to talking about whatever the people closest to your home were into, and if they didn’t get as big a kick out of 12 tracks of Bryan Cranston rapping about his dick as you did, then you were on your own.

 Those guys are stupid, Heisen-Boner was an awesome song.

There’s no shortage of keyboard wielding dipshits weighing in on true crime entertainment, this is ground well-trodden on crappy blogs like mine, but if you consume this macabre form of entertainment for long enough, you’ll notice that they all share common ground when it comes to online discussions.

True Crime is provocative, you can’t spark all these emotions in a person and expect them to sit in quiet reflection, hell no! They’re gonna hit the internet hard and make sure all of you know exactly how they feel. So here are five ways people like to express themselves that I’ve condensed into a semi-coherent humour article. Let’s start with…

5. Complaining about biased storytelling.

You must’ve heard it before:

“These shows are biased toward the criminals. What about the other side of the story?”

The worst thing about this complaint is that it’s right. Even the programs that like to ride the fence and leave an air of ambiguity to the subject’s guilt often cast their defendants in a fairly favourable light. They’re endearing underdogs that have been wronged by the system and you should want to bust them out of jail right this second! Damn, just writing this is making me angry! Yes, I’ll sign your petition! Let’s get it in front of Obama right goddamn now!

“I’ve called this conference so you dumbasses will finally learn the meaning of the words “Federal Case!”

We can agree that there is bias at work here, but not in the way that the speaker has in mind.

The whole “one side of the story” argument forgets that the entire reason these guys are in jail is because that “other side” they claim is missing was already told in court to a judge and jury. The prosecution responsible for the defendant’s incarceration had a pretty receptive audience, and they liked their story enough to send a dude off for some serious jail time.

Also, these stories don’t stay confined to the court. After a conviction the prosecution’s narrative is bounced around hundreds of news outlets and quickly becomes engrained in the public’s mind as the official version of events – regardless of its factual accuracy.

“Extra! Extra! Dude proven totally guilty by impressively hung prosecutor!”

Before Making a Murderer, any googling of Steven Avery would fire back reams of reports touting the prosecution’s account of a once wrongly convicted man who went on to commit a crime that’d make the Jigsaw killer proud. Two of my favorite publications ran pieces that painted Steven Avery as the underpantsless embodiment of evil, and I ate that shit up. I didn’t give a moment of thought to his factual guilt. I heard the story, I was angered at his wrongful conviction and disgusted by his subsequent crimes. And then, I shut off my phone and forgot all about Steven Avery. Because fuck him; dudes guilty.

And I carried that sentiment around in my head until I binge watched Making a Murderer. And why wouldn’t I? What reason would I have to doubt what I’d heard? If it wasn’t for shows like Making a Murderer, the only side of the story out there would be the one people are claiming was never told.

“Yeah well, what about the stuff they left out? Leaving out incriminating stuff isn’t exactly becoming of someone looking to tell the whole story.”

This missing info stuff is boner fuel for any guilty leaning true crime enthusiast. And again, they’re right… Kinda. The idea of behind the scenes cherry picking doesn’t exactly inspire an audience’s confidence in the integrity of the producers, but they also left out the defence’s rebuttal to those points.

Scepticism is healthy, and people are absolutely right to bring up details missing from the narrative when trying to get a clearer picture. Because if these guys are truly innocent, what do they have to hide, right? Why hold back?

It has less to do with deception and more to do with getting key details across in their most digestible form. In long, detail-heavy documentaries, there’s going to be a lot left on the cutting room floor. It’s unavoidable, especially if you don’t want to be brought up on wrongful death charges after your entire audience dies of boredom. Besides, to the people who really want to roll up their sleeves and plunge elbow deep into the shit pile, these shows  only serve as the starting point. There’s plenty more info available all over the internet for anybody who’s interested.

Nobody likes to be taken for a dickhead, and I think that’s why people love to shout about missing pieces or biased reporting, so they can say “You may have fooled everybody else, documentary. But I know what’s really going on here, you can’t fool me.”

These shows terrify a good portion of their demographic, because in the eyes of some, the prospect of these guys getting any support or a shot at release is horrifying.

But believe it or not, judges aren’t known for setting prisoners free based on how captivated they were by their Netflix queue.

“The documentary was great, you’re free to go!”

And yes, while these guys enjoy a certain uptick in support from the public, they’d still have to navigate a complex and incredibly hard to please legal system that isn’t a huge fan of reversing their previous decisions and is pretty much designed to screw them. But hey, if you wanna keep complaining, you could always fall back on…

4. “He’s totally guilty. There are innocent people in jail, but this guy isn’t one of them.”

No two human brains are wired in the exact same way; so you shouldn’t be surprised that people come away from these documentaries with the polar opposite of your point of view. And while some hem and haw over a person’s guilt or innocence, others seem strangely eager to wash their hands of their fellow human beings. As of 2014, there are an estimated 120,000 innocent people serving time in US prisons, and some people just can’t believe that the handful of prisoners who feature in true crime programs could ever contribute to that number.

I mean, c’mon; you’d have to be pretty cynical to finish up Making a Murderer, or Serial and not at the very least have a few doubts about the merits of those convictions, right? You don’t have to be flying a flag for their release or anything, but there are pretty big question marks at the end of these cases.

For example:

Adnan Syed of Serial was convicted with no physical evidence whatsoever. He’s spent half his life in jail on the merits of cell phone evidence that is widely considered junk science by today’s standards and the testimony of a dude whose story has evolved that often that its practically a Pokemon.

Go! Bullshit-saur!

Steven Avery had damning pieces of evidence collected by cops who had no business searching his house. Cops that might be tempted to screw over ol’ Stevie Leg-Irons on account of the fact he was about to fucking bankrupt them! Not to mention the police’s horrific handling of Brendan Dassey.

Now, are these guys guilty? Maybe! I don’t know! And that’s the fucking point! I don’t know! And neither do you! So stop pretending!

I think most people assume that a wrongfully convicted person would be more obvious; that they’d have more going for them than Adnan Syed or Steven Avery. But the fact of the matter is that a lot of exonerated prisoners had painfully bleak appeals and would’ve killed (sorry) to have had a deck stacked as nicely as Avery or Syed.

In many cases, wrongfully convicted inmates were miraculously proven innocent by recent scientific advances, last-ditch DNA testing or just plain old dumb luck. Yes, luck! Take for example, Alfred Brown – sentenced to death for the murder of store clerk, Alfredia Jones and police officer Charles Clarke. He was released after a homicide detective found exculpatory telephone logs whilst clearing out his garage. A house fire? A flood? Maybe the detective pays somebody to clean his garage out for him, and Alfred Brown is still on death row today. That’s just one hue from the spectrum of wrongful conviction. These cases are never simple, and they sure as hell aren’t clear for all to see.

But going off the online discussions of these cases; you’d never know that. Because I’m sure what some of these people have in mind when they think of a wrongful conviction is some cartoonishly unlucky shmuck that stepped straight out of an episode of Frasier. In their eyes, a wrongly convicted person is just caught up in some wacky misunderstanding that could be easily resolved, as if they got drunk one night and staggered into an empty cell.

“I got the charge down to misdemeanour trespassing, but the guard wants compensation for the puke in his hat.”

There’s nothing wrong with veering away from the internet mobs screaming “He’s innocent!” and taking a step back to look at things, because again, a sceptical approach is good, but that scepticism is useless if you’re not actually going to use it to find the truth.

Truth is the only logical path meaningful scepticism can follow, stopping halfway and landing on a verdict is not good enough. Sure, it’s natural for people’s biases to cause them to lean one way or another, but realistically – it’s just a feeling. It’s not concrete, it’s not conclusive, it’s a fucking hunch. Justice can’t be effectively served on a hunch, that’s as good a tactic as poisoning a city’s water supply and hoping only the criminals get sick. But this isn’t even the worst reaction to these shows. After all, there are people out there saying

3. “It was obviously this guy! Let’s get him!”

We as a species love to set things right. Nothing beats that warm fuzzy feeling we get when long over-due justice is finally served. Well, nearly nothing. Rage feels pretty good too. Try to deny it all you want, but anger feels great, especially when we feel it’s justified.

Another reason for the success of these docs is that they allow us to combine our rage with a sense of righteousness. If you’re inclined to believe that the subject of your show is innocent, you might be pushed to dig a little deeper into the case. And in your digging, you might come up with a potential suspect that would make a nice fit for the actual killer! Awesome! This all makes sense! Sure it’s speculative, but holy shit! You’re about to bust this case wide open!

After all, it’s not like crowdsourced investigations have never yielded positive results. Take for example, the time a group of Facebook and Reddit users revealed the identity of an unknown teenager killed in a car accident twenty years ago, or the time they pooled their brain power to help find a missing teen. As an investigation tool, the internet can work incredibly well… Sometimes.

On those pages I linked to back there that praise the efforts of internet investigators, you’ll also find references to a more infamous case, where the name of a completely innocent man was thrown up as a possible suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013. Just like the cops, the internet doesn’t always get it right, and we wind up with innocent people being wrongly dickslapped by the internet’s throbbing cock of justice.

Looking back at Serial, more than a few listeners came to the conclusion that their new buddy Adnan couldn’t possibly have killed anybody. It was obviously the self-proclaimed “criminal element of Woodlawn”, Jay Wilds – an admitted accomplice to the murder and clearly the orchestrator of a masterful frame job designed to send Adnan down the river for his own misdeeds.

Believing a particular person might be responsible for the crime is understandable, especially when it’s pretty clear that they’re being anything but completely truthful about what they know. But hey, that’s just somebody’s personal theory, it’s not like anybody would ever track Jay down and- Oh no, wait! Someone totally did.

jay

Grab your torches and pitchforks, fellas! It’s time to dish out some justice, Shrek-style!

According to screen grabs from Jay’s 2014 Intercept interview, this guy was even planning on confronting him. Fortunately common sense somehow prevailed, but even after the averted confrontation and deleting of the post, it was already too late. Jay’s full name and home address had been out there for all to see.

A lot of you might not know this, but there was once a famous running back named O.J. Simpson who was bought up on a double murder charge. Now, I won’t go too far into details of this particular case because it’s pretty obscure and the trial kinda dragged, but despite vast swathes of the public setting up their tent in Camp Guilty, a jury cleared O.J. of both murders and he was a free man.

For a while.

Sure, he was later found liable for the deaths in a civil trial, but OJ still had a fairly sizable pocket of supporters that believed he stood a chance at being completely innocent. One such supporter is Bill Dear, a private investigator who happens to be casting suspicious glances toward O.J.’s son, Jason. Dear contends that Jason is the perpetrator of the murders, with O.J. taking the heat after helping his son conceal his guilt. He published a book detailing the ins and outs of his theory, so feel free to check it out and make up your own mind as to whether he’s full of shit or not. But regardless of its factual merit, that book is still out there, and in the minds of some, Jason Simpson is a murderer because of it.

Now I’m not going to swear to the innocence of Jay Wilds, or Jason Simpson, or that fucking owl from The Staircase because there are some good reasons to include them in these theories. But what I will say is that we’re treading on some very dangerous ground here.

It’s fun to have a theory when there is nothing at stake, but for the potentially innocent subjects of those theories there are some goddamned ginormous ones. Surprisingly, there appears to be a few downsides to having a globe spanning online army convinced that you’re getting away with murder.

These theories might be plenty convincing, but they’re nowhere near concrete. To the rest of the world, these guys are just pieces of a game that bears no real consequence. We can weave a thousand convincing theories out of the evidence we have in front of us and wrap the threads in any way we see fit to make everything fall neatly into place, but just because something makes sense doesn’t mean it has any anchor in reality. What we decide is likely to have happened doesn’t necessarily equate to what actually transpired.

2.Believing that the whole truth is attainable.

Life isn’t always certain, and people hate that. Sarah Koenig herself began Serial under the impression that, “Certainty seemed so attainable. We just needed to get the right documents, spend enough time, talk to the right people, find his alibi…” and over the course investigating the case for over a year, came to realise that “even the soberest likely scenarios holds no more water than the most harebrained. All speculation is equally speculative.” Meaning that our most logical theories have something in common with the theories of a dude who wasn’t quite paying attention because he was busy killing it on Candy Crush. So long as they line up with what we know to be true, we can’t really dismiss either of them.

This is why I had trouble accepting Dana Chivvis’ assessment of Adnan Syed’s case at Serial’s conclusion. Dana, the person responsible for a boom in Baltimore’s shrimp market, posited that Adnan would’ve had to have been on the receiving end of a veritable marathon of bad luck to be innocent and still be found guilty of Hae Lee’s murder. Which on it’s face isn’t an unreasonable assessment. Except we can’t rule out that he wasn’t. In this gaping expanse of a universe we call home, extremely unlikely events do occur in even less likely sequences. Shit, none of us would be alive today if that wasn’t the case!

How else would you explain this happening?

But our inability to understand probability isn’t the only factor that clouds our vision of truth. Eye witnesses have been proven to be anything but infallible. In fact, implanting false memories in a person has proven to be a piece of cake due to the way our brains operate when recalling past events. We tend to reconstruct memories from pieces of information we have stored rather than play them back like a video tape, and that reconstructive element is apparently super easy to manipulate. And that’s not taking into consideration any coaching by police, prosecutors or defence attorneys along the way.

Of course, we also have the expert witnesses; the guys paid for their expert opinions on cases who speak with authority on particular fields. Which sounds like a good way to hear unbiased, reliable testimony, until you come to find that oftentimes, expert witnesses are little more than scarecrows stuffed with bullshit that have been propped up on the stand. Take for example, the time a review by the National Association of Criminal Defence Lawyers and the Innocence Project revealed that 32 people had been sentenced to death based on the testimony of FBI expert witnesses who had no fucking clue what they were talking about.

“Credentials? I’ll have you know that I’ve seen every episode of True Detective! TWICE!”

Time is also an annoying adversary to truth, especially in cases like Syed’s, where we’re forced to look nearly twenty years into the past to find evidence that was missed or overlooked in the initial investigation. And this style of investigation has proven itself to be problematic. I don’t mean to keep harping on about Serial, but out of all these programs it’s the one I’m most familiar with, so shut up and let me talk about it some more. One of the more successful podcasts that spawned from season one of Serial’s subject matter is Bob Ruff’s Truth and Justice Podcast. In which Bob Ruff investigates avenues unexplored by the initial investigation and gives a voice to the behind the scenes players we didn’t hear from in Serial. In the course of this investigation Bob has ran through a series of suspects in an attempt to establish who’s innocent and who warrants further investigation.

Remember Don? Hae Lee’s boyfriend at the time of her murder?

Well, after digging deeper into some issues with the timecards that provided his alibi, Bob has so far not been able to clear him as a suspect. Which culminated in a super awkward Q&A session at the Night for Justice Gala when Bob straight up announced to the world that he thinks Don was the person that killed Hae. Now, I like Bob. I think his podcast is awesome and his resolve to fight for the wrongfully convicted takes the kind of strength and patience that I just don’t have, but I can’t say I’m completely on board with his bold assertions regarding Don’s guilt. I honestly don’t think it’s Bob’s style or intention to railroad somebody, so I’d be very interested in the evidence he claims to have under-wraps. However, I believe it’s likely that the evidence we’d need to be 100% certain of any alternative suspects guilt was brushed past 17 years ago and has pretty much been lost to time.

“Right, we’re done here. Send in the cleaning team, then burn this place to the ground.”

We certainly need answers; shady time cards and conspiring manager moms are a serious red-flag. Nonetheless, in the heat of the moment we can get so worked up that we forget the reason we set out on these paths in the first place. The set of moral standards that causes people to call for the release of Adnan and others like him are the same moral standards that should be protecting these long lost suspects from having guilt unfairly thrust upon them. After all; it’d be pretty hypocritical of us to advocate for the release of one guy if we’re willing to ship another off to the big-house on evidence that is arguably just as flimsy.

“So… What? We’re just supposed to let the murderer who framed our guy go free?”

Ideally, you shouldn’t even have to ask that question. Because in the ideal world we all dream we could live in, the cops don’t have to rush investigations, evidence never gets missed, and the right guy gets caught every time. That is not the world we live in. If you believe it is, please stand next to your nearest window and I’ll be along as soon as I can to dropkick you out of it.

This is where things get scary, because we’re confronted by an aspect of the justice system that is broken and there is no clear way to fix it. Should guilty men be allowed to go free to protect innocent suspects? Or are a few innocent men a justifiable sacrifice to keep killers off the streets? Everybody loves to pat themselves on the back and say things like “I’d rather ten guilty men go free than one innocent man go to prison.” and they believe it… So long as they don’t have to live next door to one of those guys.

The unfortunate truth is, if we want to be fair to the innocent, sometimes the guilty must go free. If the evidence just isn’t there, what else can we do? Scapegoating only further perpetuates the idea that so long as somebody is in jail, justice has been done, when in reality you stand a chance at creating more injustice.

By all means, investigate those who deserve scrutiny, but in our ideal world if people are actually going to be locked up we should be bringing more to the table than evidence that could be spun toward whatever direction the beholder wants it to go.

The moment that confirmation bias saunters into our minds and rubs its sweaty dick all over these cases is the moment that finding the truth becomes that much more difficult. As if it wasn’t hard enough deciphering evidence and witness statements, now we have to battle our own bullshit on top of that. Biases often work below the surface, so even when you think you’re being objective – you most likely aren’t. It’s largely inescapable. In a large enough group, you’ll find people with biases, opinions and theories that line up nicely with yours and you’ll gravitate toward each other. Which brings me to my least favourite reaction to true crime…

1. Civil War.

Humans are social creatures, and the internet makes it super easy to find our people. After the initial free-for-all discussions on the message boards, the lines in the sand eventually become clearly drawn. There’s you and your people, and then there’s everybody else. After all, we all wanna be around the people whose shit smells like ours. Whether you’re aware of it or not, people are looking at your comments and assigning you to a team: Guilty, or Innocent.

I guess you could count those free-loading, fence-sitting Undecided’s too.

Sure, each “team” has its little subdivisions where people like to get a little more specific about their convictions:

“He’s guilty, but he didn’t get a fair trial.”

“He’s GAF, but he shouldn’t have gotten life.”

“I think he’s innocent, but who else could have done it?”

“He’s innocent, but he had something to do with it!”

Etc, etc.

But in the grand scheme of things, all splinter groups fall under the banner one of those two verdicts.

And its fucking horseshit. All of it.

My main objective in writing these articles isn’t to argue that my “team” is right and that any dissenters are idiots with poor personal hygiene, its simply to remind people that we don’t really know much of anything and what we can know is incredibly limited. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have biases, or that I don’t have theories and beliefs regarding the guilt or innocence of these documentary subjects; of course I do, I don’t think I’d qualify as human if I didn’t.

But I can’t build myself up into a frothing rage arguing with internet strangers over something that neither one of us can possibly know the truth behind. We can talk about evidence and Occam’s Razor until we choke on our own bile, but it doesn’t change the fact that neither one of us were present at the scene of the crime. We don’t have a time machine, we don’t know the people involved, we don’t have video proof to back our arguments or anything concrete that cannot be argued against. We’ve walked straight into the middle of somebody’s personal tragedy with one finger up our nose and another up our asshole while screaming and shouting about how we know best.

Well, guess what? We don’t know. For every “smoking gun” we use to bolster our stance, there could be another missing piece of evidence that would render that theory inert.

Tough shit though, because humans don’t want inertia or uncertainty, we don’t look for anything that might take the wind out of our sails. We don’t want our smoking gun unveiled as impotent squirt-gun of doubt. No, we want our version of the truth confirmed.

“This is perfect!”

Unfortunately, we only know what the evidence suggests took place. There is absolutely no way to be sure we aren’t talking directly out of our asses. But still, people want to be part of a team. Even if you don’t, you’ll be categorised by others based on your conduct inside these forums. Opinions that fall outside of the particular forum’s party line are often heavily down-voted or deleted, and their originators banned in order to create a blissful utopia where holders of dissenting opinions are hunted for sport. It fosters the belief that only a complete moron would believe anything other than that forum’s chosen narrative. Honestly, it’s worse than fucking high school in these places.

However, the real divide between true crime fans isn’t about innocence or guilt. When it comes down to it, the only two teams that really exist in this scenario are Team Truth and Team Bullshit. The criteria for entry is simple:

  • Digging for new information, uncovering evidence and presenting it regardless of its impact on your preconceived ideas of guilt or innocence will earn you a spot on Team Truth.
  • Refusing to acknowledge evidence, testimony or anything that flies in the face of your beliefs –regardless of your reasoning for doing so– lands you in the territory of Team Bullshit.

Sure, you can feel certain ways about evidence and testimony, “I don’t trust this guy, I think this he’s lying”, but you can’t ignore the possibility that your intuition might be wrong.

It’s a lot easier to be on Team Bullshit because it requires such little effort. You can just step up and claim your victory for Team Innocent/Guilty by ignoring everybody else. Being on Team Truth means that you have to consider absolutely everything; you can’t just walk away from a line of investigation because you don’t like the road it’s taking you down.

“C’mon guys, there could be thousands of innocent reasons for him to have the victim’s skeleton in his wardrobe.”

The knife of Truth & Bullshit cuts both ways, there are guilt leaning people and innocent leaning people mixed into both sides. Although, if you look at the arguments that people are having online, you’ll quickly see that absolutely everybody thinks they’re on Team Truth, regardless of how many lies they tell or facts they misrepresent. Their only goal is to make people think they know what they’re talking about.

“It’s OK for us to manipulate the facts, conveniently misremember details or just plain make shit up, because we’re groovy and we know the REAL truth! We’re fighting for what’s right! BIG PICTURE!”

However, the reality is that contributing anything that isn’t a step toward figuring out what really happened in these cases will land you a seat on the bullshit bus. If you want to have even the slightest hope of figuring out what really happened in these cases you better make sure your ass is on the Truth side of this equation, because every ounce of bullshit flung obscures the facts and makes Team Truth’s job that much more difficult.

We have to ask ourselves; are we prepared to bust our asses looking for a truth they may never be uncovered? Or do we want to take the easy route and just claim that we already know it?

Here’s the Twitter account I use to retweet people who’re funnier than me: @notthefirstone 

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