By Maurice Chammah
Read Maurice Chammah’s work at The Marshall Project, a nonprofit outlet publishing journalism and news about the U.S. criminal justice system.
I’ve been in a lot of conversations lately in which a two-word phrase is spoken — ”true crime” — and then, during the ensuing beat of silence, everyone reads the room and modulates their reactions based on the expressions of everyone else. Or maybe it’s just me. For some, the phrase simply sparks exclamations and recommendations, stories of late nights spent binging The Jinx or I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. But others wince, because no matter how sophisticated the storytelling or agreeable the politics, an icky aftertaste remains.
Since 2014, when the podcast Serial inaugurated the new true-crime boom, cultural critics have tried to puzzle out whether these factually accurate but necessarily sculpted stories of murder, rape, and grift are culturally valuable, corrosive, or both. Among the critiques: We’re skewing our view of who is the most vulnerable in America through a myopic focus on white women victims. We’ve “rotted” women’s brains with paranoia and “[entrenched] the flaws of America’s criminal justice system.”
On the other hand, as lawyer and podcast host Rabia Chaudry recently pointed out to the New York Times, the genre can also invite more scrutiny of the justice system. Over the last five years, while writing a book about the death penalty, and a narrative story about a controversial murder investigation, I’ve noticed that our debates sometimes fail to articulate that when we say “true crime,” we’re really talking about a huge variety of story types, one of which is especially good at taking readers right to the heart of important policy questions.
I’ll call it the “Wrongful Conviction Story,” a subgenre of true crime that examines the failures of police, courts, and other government actors, and questions whether they’ve caught and punished the correct person. I’m not calling it the “Innocence Story,” because “wrongful” is a subjective adjective, implying an argument is being made, while “innocence” implies the writer can fully prove the objective truth, which, usually, they can’t. These stories aren’t necessarily out to answer whether someone is guilty or innocent. They’re about the failures of a system that ensnares millions of Americans each year, innocent and guilty.
A few years ago, I heard another writer say that magazine editors didn’t want these stories anymore, because they were no longer “surprising” to readers. That may be overstated, but it is true that journalists need to keep innovating in terms of how we build narratives if we’re going to get readers to follow us into a system full of misery, pain, and jargon like “voir dire” and “Brady violation,” showing them the real thing rather than the tidy heroes-and-villains worlds of Law & Order and NCIS.
I’ve collected a handful of my favorite examples of the Wrongful Conviction Story. Each represents a further slice of the subgenre, along with other stories I think are worth your attention if you want to go deeper, whether because you’re a fellow journalist, a lawyer (very much a profession in which one tells stories), or just a curious reader.
Pamela Colloff didn’t invent the wrongful conviction magazine story, but she did perfect it. While working for Texas Monthly, ProPublica, and The New York Times Magazine, she’s figured out how to foreground action and build characters efficiently, so that you can slip into the pool with her protagonists and feel their panic as they start to drown. One of her lesser-known tales concerns Julie Rea, a single mother convicted of killing her 10-year-old son Joel, based on faulty analysis of blood at the crime scene. We learn about “blood spatter” but spend most of our time on Rea’s four traumas: losing her son, being falsely convicted, going to prison, and trying to make her way again in the free world.
In the wake of the murder, she could not bear to be alone. Terrified of the dark, she rarely slept. She stayed in an apartment an hour-and-a-half’s drive away, in Bloomington, Indiana, where she had been commuting to Indiana University’s Ph.D. program. There, a rotation of friends stayed with her around the clock. “To fall asleep, I had to have someone on either side of me and the lights on,” she said.
More from Pamela Colloff’s oeuvre:
Reasonable Doubt (Maya Dukmasova, Chicago Reader, August 2021)
It’s pretty bold to make the second word of your article your own name, but anyone who has listened to Serial understands that it can be valuable for the journalist to present him or herself as a first-person narrator. I’d been struggling with whether this was worth doing in my own writing, and I was impressed with how Maya Dukmasova utilized her own ambivalence — and the more freewheeling prose style typical of alt-weeklies like the Chicago Reader — to propel the reader into her tale of a potentially innocent Illinois prisoner. She also goes meta, discussing Janet Malcolm’s seminal book The Journalist and the Murderer and the sticky ethics of reporting on someone who tells you they’re innocent. You say you believe them, but both of you may be lying.
Publishing a story someone doesn’t want out there is an act of betrayal even if you have no relationship to them. As a journalist, especially a white one, the way you justify it to yourself is by saying that the story is bigger than its central character, that his life experiences aren’t really just his to publicize or keep private, that they belong to everyone. This line of thinking is particularly potent when you’ve already invested significant time and energy into a story—as though with that expenditure you’ve purchased a person’s right to refuse or consent to be written about. I’d done a lot of digging by then. I decided to keep going, partially because it felt too late to turn back, and also because I believed what happened to Allen was wrong, even if I didn’t fully believe him.
More stories from alt-weeklies:
The Sniff Test (Peter Andrey Smith, Science, October 2021)
Stories about the court system’s failures are generally best when they focus on people, but this story artfully foregrounds a canine character, exploring the dubious science of “cadaver dogs” as the latest of the forensic disciplines that judges, lawyers, and researchers are finding lack any real scientific backing. Many such stories look at trials from the distant past, but Peter Andrey Smith manages to capture multiple timelines while also centering a tragic Colorado case that is very much happening now and features a duel between a star expert witness and the Innocence Project lawyers questioning her claims.
Behind a dog’s leathery, wet nose lies a cavernous labyrinth of scroll-shaped chambers called ethmoturbinates lined with some 200 million olfactory receptors, encoded by an estimated 2.5 times as many genes as in humans. In recent years, researchers studying canine cognition have shown pet dogs can sniff out minute quantities of odorants, such as the odor of their owner’s T-shirt after it has been worn.
More forensic science stories:
- “Forensic Science Put Jimmy Genrich in Prison for 24 Years. What if It Wasn’t Science?” (Meehan Crist and Tim Requarth, The Nation, February 2018)
- “Trial by Fire” (David Grann, The New Yorker, September 2009)
- “Playing With Fire” (Liliana Segura, The Intercept, February 2015)
- “The Interview” (Douglas Starr, The New Yorker, December 2013)
- “Framed for Murder by His Own DNA” (Katie Worth, The Marshall Project, April 2018)
On the other hand: If a writer is too focused on the people (or the dogs), they may miss the big picture dynamics. When an innocent person goes to prison, it’s a failure of multiple people and institutions. I love how Neena Satija uses a single assault charge — a more common crime than murder, the typical focus of wrongful conviction stories — to help us understand the problems of money, favoritism, and red tape that surround how people who can’t afford to pay for lawyers get represented, or not represented.
A 58-year-old with strawberry-blond hair and thin glasses, [Ray] Espersen was one of Austin’s most prolific lawyers: the previous year he’d been paid for work on 331 felonies and 275 misdemeanors in Travis County, as well as 46 felonies in neighboring Williamson County—more cases than nearly any other Austin-area attorney. … [Marvin] Wilford did not know this. What he did know was that … Espersen didn’t seem to be listening. The visitation room was tiny, and the two sat practically knee to knee, but “he was looking at the floor, scratching his head, looking everywhere but at me,” Wilford recalled.
More stories that capture a big system:
Drawings from Prison (Valentino Dixon, Golf Digest, May 2012)
Did you hear the one about the golf magazine that helped free a man from prison? While serving a long sentence for murder, Valentino Dixon grew obsessed with drawing golf courses, which caught the attention of Golf Digest. But the editors there also found his conviction suspicious, and they dug in. Dixon is now free, and the original article about his case involves a fascinating juxtaposition of hard-nosed criminal justice reporting and Dixon’s honest, intimate account of finding mental solace through his ordeal by drawing greens, holes, and trees.
I’ve never hit a golf ball. I’ve never set foot on a golf course. Everything I draw is from inside a 6-by-10 prison cell. The first course I ever drew was for warden James Conway. He would often stop by my cell to ask how my appeal was going and to see my drawings. Before he retired, the warden brought me a photograph of the 12th hole at Augusta National and asked if I could draw it for him. … The look of a golf hole spoke to me. It seemed peaceful. I imagine playing it would be a lot like fishing.
More first-person writing from the proven-innocent:
I’m Sorry (Kyle Zirpolo as told to Debbie Nathan, Los Angeles Times, October 2005)
It’s sad to say, but many readers now shrug when they see a headline like “Innocent Person Freed” because the phenomenon feels so common. The stories told about these cases can fall into patterns and cliches that lose readers. One solution is to focus not on the story of the wrongfully accused, but on someone else involved in the case. Reporter Debbie Nathan was even more creative, ceding the voice of her story almost entirely over to Kyle Zirpolo: a young man who, as a child, had accused adults of sexual crimes, but later realized he’d been pressured by the authorities to invent the stories. Nathan follows up his account with the backstory of why he came forward.
Anytime I would give them an answer that they didn’t like, they would ask again and encourage me to give them the answer they were looking for. It was really obvious what they wanted. I know the types of language they used on me: things like I was smart, or I could help the other kids who were scared.
More stories about the effects of wrongful convictions on people outside prison:
I remember vividly sitting in a coffee shop in Austin as the sun set, squinting and ignoring my stomach growls while I inhaled each twist in Mike Hall’s story about a murder mystery and the many lives consumed in its wake. There are questions around forensic science and the behavior of prosecutors, but Hall keeps casting his camera in new directions, novelistically accreting details and tapping true-crime conventions to lead us towards ineffable questions of time, tragedy, and justice.
[David] Spence insisted he couldn’t remember murdering anyone, but he began to wonder if it was possible that he had really done it.
“Did I kill them kids?”
“I think you did,” said the deputy.
“Why don’t I know?”
More kaleidoscopic, character-driven tales:
- “Homer and Harold” (Ken Armstrong, The Marshall Project with Smithsonian and WBUR, December 2016)
- “Texas v Larry Swearingen” (Andrew Purcell, The Dublin Review, Summer 2013)
- “Remembering Satan” (Lawrence Wright, The New Yorker, May 1993)
- “Blood Cries Out” (Sean Patrick Cooper, The Atavist Magazine, November 2018)
- “Remembering the Murder You Didn’t Commit” (Rachel Aviv, The New Yorker, June 2017)
- “Innocent People Don’t Run” (Liam Boylan-Pett, Løpe Magazine, February 2019)
- “Life After ‘Life’” (Samantha Melamed, Philadelphia Inquirer, January 2020)
Dead Certainty (Kathryn Schulz, The New Yorker, January 2016)
Let’s end this on a note of caution. For every somber reporting project, there’s some juicy content that uses the tools and stylistic modes of journalism, but lets either entertainment or advocacy take precedence. I’ve returned maybe a dozen times to Kathryn Schulz’s essay on Making a Murderer, which explores why journalists, filmmakers, and others have grown comfortable questioning the verdicts of the courts, and what the costs of this can be, especially for the grieving families at the center of these cases.
Yet the most obvious thing to say about true-crime documentaries is something that, surprisingly often, goes unsaid: They turn people’s private tragedies into public entertainment. If you have lost someone to violent crime, you know that, other than the loss itself, few things are as painful and galling as the daily media coverage, and the license it gives to strangers to weigh in on what happened. That experience is difficult enough when the coverage is local, and unimaginable when a major media production turns your story into a national pastime.
Maurice Chammah is a staff writer at The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system. He was on a team that won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. His first book, Let the Lord Sort Them: The Rise and Fall of the Death Penalty, was published by Crown in 2021 and won the J. Anthony Lukas Work-In-Progress Book Award. A former Fulbright fellow in Cairo, he also plays the violin and is an assistant editor at American Short Fiction. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands
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