On December 9, 2001, Michael Peterson, a novelist and onetime mayoral candidate in Durham, North Carolina, made a distraught 911 call. His wife had fallen down the stairs, he said, come quickly. The police arrived and examined the area, which didn’t look good. There was more blood than anyone would have expected, and Kathleen Peterson’s head wounds looked as though they had been inflicted in a violent attack. Less than two weeks later, Peterson was charged with his wife’s murder.
After his arrest, Michael Peterson decided to bare his whole life to a film crew, who followed him and his lawyers from the moment they began to build a defense, through his trial, and ultimately to his conviction. The show premiered on French television in 2004 under the title Soupçons, or Suspicions, but in English it was called The Staircase. Like Serial and Making a Murderer, the story sprawled across many hours—eight episodes, plus two follow-up episodes in 2013—and featured in-depth discussions of the evidence. It dredged up Peterson’s past as the prosecutor also would: how his secret emails to a male escort could play against him; how his Vietnam “battle wounds”—injuries he talked up during his mayoral run—were actually caused by a car accident. As both sides wrestle the details into their own narratives, the viewer is caught between the prosecution’s theory that Peterson attacked his wife with a blowpoke and the defense’s that she fell.
Except in this case, there is another, completely different version of events, one that illustrates some of the tensions in our relationship with new true crime series. Built on an odd detail that T. Lawrence Pollard, one of Michael Peterson’s neighbors, noticed when he starting looking through an old evidence list in 2009, the theory contended that Kathleen Peterson had been attacked by an owl. Microscopic owl feathers had been found in a clump of her hair and several people had been attacked by owls in the Durham area that year. Experts agreed that an owl’s talons could have caused the pattern of lacerations on her head and cedar needles had been found on her hands and body, suggesting she had fallen outside. From all this, Pollard concluded that Kathleen’s death could have been caused by a large bird of prey.
The Owl Theory wasn’t argued at trial and it wasn’t included in The Staircase. For all legal purposes, it was next to useless. But it has nonetheless become central to much of the public discussion of Peterson’s case. It has been disputed on message boards, examined in episodes of at least two popular crime podcasts, and written up in Le Monde, where it was compared to the plot of The Birds. Its appeal isn’t hard to fathom, since the theory is both simple and imaginative. It is essentially escapist, offering a mental path away from the questions a story of brutal murder might raise. And more than ever, this is how we respond to true crime: rather than dwelling on the nature of the crimes themselves or on loss, or pointing to problems with the justice system, people are swapping their own explanations of what happened. The abundant public interest in cases like this has not necessarily resulted in more interest in the workings of justice, as you might expect it to, but has produced a new, interactive type of crime story, with its own distractions and satisfactions.
Of course, the public has to some extent always seen crime as entertainment and justice as a spectator sport, whether the story is packaged in the taut sentences of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or in the televised spectacle of O.J. Simpson’s trial. And the genre of true crime has often been a starting point for unlikely theories too—that Jack the Ripper was actually the Duke of Clarence, perhaps, or that the mob killed Marilyn Monroe. Anyone with an appetite for this kind of speculation could consume as much of it as they liked in tabloid newspapers, in book-length treatments, and on certain television channels that seem to air nothing but cold cases. What they couldn’t easily do was get close to the documentation and evidence, or collaborate on research with other would-be investigators across the country.
With the explosion of interest in Serial in 2014—and subsequent serialized crime documentaries—all this changed. Serial created a mass audience for true crime documentaries that explore the ambiguities of one case in depth over a period of episodes. Its popularity has come at just the right time, coinciding with the rise of forums like Reddit, Websleuths, and dedicated crime Facebook groups. Over 80 million people have so far downloaded episodes of the podcast, in which reporter Sarah Koenig tells the story of Adnan Syed, who was found guilty of the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 1999 but maintains his innocence. Tribute podcasts—the A.V. Club’s The Serial Serial and Slate’s Serial Spoiler Special—have started up around the show, dissecting each episode and analyzing the show’s analysis. Fifty thousand listeners have joined the Serial subreddit, where they share court transcripts, ask why no one looked up Syed’s 1999 email logs, and point out inconsistencies in witnesses’ timelines, often in the manner of Koenig herself. Eighteen months on from its release, the show supports a whole ecosystem of comment, conjecture, and investigation from viewers.
The crime series that followed have attracted similarly obsessive discussion. In March last year, over 1 million people watched the final episode of HBO’s The Jinx, which centers on Robert Durst, the heir to a real-estate fortune who is suspected in several murders and the disappearance of his first wife in 1982. The moment that Durst, muttering to himself in the bathroom with his mic still on, confessed that he “killed them all” instantly went viral, and fans have since analyzed his body language—the way his eyes twitched when he seemed to be lying—and his New York City real-estate investments. Even more widely discussed is Netflix’s Making a Murderer, which follows the trial of Steven Avery, a man exonerated of rape charges after eighteen years in prison, only to be arrested for murder a few years later. Netflix doesn’t release ratings figures, but the show’s subreddit is bigger than Serial’s, with 60,000 active members. Over half a million people have signed a Change.org petition to “Free Steven Avery” since the series was released in December 2015.
Audiences now expect to be able to examine the evidence close up and weigh its significance in the same way the producers of these shows do. People who post to Reddit about these cases often imagine themselves as detectives or jurors. “What is your threshold for ‘guilty beyond a reasonable doubt’?” one Redditor asked a few months ago. They also question whether the real-life jury was able to carry out its role properly. One post lamented that a juror had deemed Syed’s decision not to testify “the biggest indicator of [his] guilt.” Another asked about the racial makeup of the jury in his first trial. The fact that people gather to role-play the trial for themselves signals dissatisfaction with the way things are actually carried out, and should be considered a group protest of sorts.
Amateur sleuths tend to focus most often, however, on what they as individuals can do to correct their perception that justice hasn’t been served, whether that means acting out the role of virtual juror or amateur detective. Many want to solve the case, once and for all. Others want to introduce enough wildly varying interpretations to banish the idea we can ever find the truth. Either way, the goal is to retell the story to one’s own satisfaction. Ethics rarely come into it. Where their official predecessors failed in thoroughness, they can cast their net wider, leaving no document undigitized, no person of interest undoxed. The victims and their families are powerless to hold off the intrusions into their lives or the erosion of their privacy.*
For many, a missing piece of evidence in these cases has the status of a cliffhanger ending in an episode. On the Serial subreddit, for instance, people obsessed over Hae Min Lee’s diary, a document that had not been released to the public because it was such a personal artifact of the life that had been taken. “What is the sensitivity with Hae’s diary all about?” a new Redditor griped. There is not much of a culture of respect for victims around even the most severe crimes, including murder, from those who have consumed them through media as nothing more than compelling stories. Apparently observing the diary taboo, another member uploaded scans of the police files from the investigation under the gruesome title “Police files. No diary. No burial pics.” The files revealed details about the victim’s family that hadn’t appeared on the podcast—such as their names and where they lived. Redditors argued in the comments under the post, but mostly about unrelated matters. People hang out at the Serial subreddit like they are showing up to a wake for the drinks.
It takes a drastic intervention to make clear that the murder of a young woman isn’t entertainment at all. Last year, Hae Min Lee’s younger brother made a Reddit account and started replying to posts about Serial. His response to the police files post is quietly devastating: “Wow,” he wrote, “There goes our privacy . . .” In a longer post of his own, he explained how painful it had been to see his sister’s murder raked over again because of the podcast:
To you listeners, its another murder mystery, crime drama, another episode of CSI. You weren’t there to see your mom crying every night, having a heart attack when she got the news that the body was found, and going to court almost every day for a year seeing your mom weeping, crying and fainting. You don’t know what we went through.
The intrusiveness of Serial fans on Reddit mirrors the intrusiveness of the show itself. One of the troubling features of the new true crime shows is how they so blithely intrude on the private tragedies of other people’s lives. Koenig had approached Hae Min Lee’s brother before the show went out and he had declined to participate. He later commented that he still hadn’t told his mother that the podcast even existed. And though Redditors were dogged in their pursuit of the diary, Koenig had herself read passages from it on the show. Listening is uncomfortable. You’re acutely aware that reading anyone’s diary—especially this diary—is a thing you should never do, but Koenig dives in without a care in the world:
I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting her diary to be like but it’s such a teenage girl’s diary. She jumps from her boyfriend to driver’s ed, to the field hockey game. She’s bubbly one minute and the next, she’s upset with her mother, or dissing her friend, or complaining about homework.
The show never attempted to justify this sort of intrusion. One might argue it is justifiable if the show is intended as muckraking journalism. But to the listener, at least, it’s clear that Serial is crime as entertainment in its purest form. At the show’s core is Koenig’s gripping journey through doubts and indecision about Syed’s innocence, as she takes a sort of agonized pleasure in not being able to make up her mind. In one episode, Koenig confides, “I feel like I’m having this experience where I’ll read something or I’ll do an interview and I’m like ‘OK, yeah, there’s no way he did it, it just doesn’t add up, it doesn’t add up’ and then the very next day I’m like, ‘oh my God, oh my God.’”
It’s the “oh my God” moments, of course, that give Serial its narrative highs. The same can be said of The Jinx, which features Andrew Jarecki and his team reacting “behind the scenes” to new pieces of evidence and breathlessly following up on leads, with Jarecki himself visibly pumped. The shows help create the cultures around them of amateur sleuthing and of viewing other people’s tragedies as a form of entertainment.
Moira Demos and Laura Ricciardi’s ten-part series Making a Murderer is notable in avoiding this trap for the most part. Although it presents a compelling story, it’s not tempting to binge on Making a Murderer; the episodes are too painful to watch all at once. A striking feature of the series is that it doesn’t treat the discussion of a murder as an intellectual game; it captures the profound incompetence of the criminal justice system, at least as it is experienced by the many Americans who do not have the same resources as real-estate scion Robert Durst.
Told mostly through talking head interviews with Steven Avery’s lawyers, clips of local news, and courtroom footage, the show doesn’t have a narrator to act out feelings of uncertainty for the audience, as Koenig does in Serial, or as producer Andrew Jarecki does in The Jinx. What you hear and see most often is helplessness. Establishing shots show the facades of jails and courthouses, or they drift over the acres of junked cars at the Avery property.
The first episode opens with footage of a jubilant Steven Avery being interviewed about his release from prison in 2003. Avery was convicted of a rape he did not commit in 1985. Even though the perpetrator, Gregory Allen, was known to local police, the deputy sheriff told the victim that her attacker “sounds like Steven Avery,” beginning the case against him. Only eighteen years later was Avery exonerated by DNA evidence and poised to sue the sheriff’s department for $36 million. But the hopeful moment doesn’t last. An Action 2 News segment plays, reporting the disappearance of a twenty-five-year-old photographer named Teresa Halbach, whose last appointment before she went missing was at the salvage yard that Steven Avery’s family ran. The police find Avery’s blood in her car. Then more evidence mounts: they find her car key in his bedroom; they obtain a confession from his sixteen-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, saying that he helped his uncle commit the murder. Both are tried and found guilty.
The response to Making a Murderer online is different too. The show has attracted its fair share of oddball theories (including one suggestion that the Zodiac Killer framed Steven Avery), but, importantly, people are also asking questions about the police, the prosecution, the judiciary, and about a system that allocates a minimum of resources to the defense. Within weeks of the show airing on Netflix, Redditors were posting Who’s Who lists, identifying the officials involved in the case, and explaining what their role was, and what it ought to have been. “Don’t forget the actions of Judge Patrick Willis,” a Redditor urged, pointing out that, among other things, the judge “permitted members of the Manitowoc Sheriff’s Dept to testify when they were clearly barred from participating in the investigation.” In another post, a public defender explains the “whole bunch of legal, ethical errors” that she believes Len Kachinsky made as Brendan Dassey’s public defender. Just as much of the speculation about Adnan Syed or Michael Peterson took its lead from Serial and The Staircase, the online debate continues Making a Murderer’s main line of inquiry. The series asks not whether Steven Avery committed the murder, but rather whether the investigation and trial were conducted properly.
Yet still lacking is any kind of larger, organized action on the part of concerned people who would like to see reform. It’s telling that many viewers turned to acts of vigilantism after seeing the show. Making a Murderer aired on December 18, and by December 24, the prosecutor in Steven Avery’s case, Ken Kratz, reported that he had received death threats. Soon, Redditors found out that he had been at the center of a sexting scandal in 2009 and had left office. Viewers of Making a Murderer found the Yelp page for his new law practice and began to leave him scathing one-star reviews, alluding to the scandal and to his conduct in the Avery case. Kachinsky, meanwhile, received hate mail for encouraging Dassey to make a confession. The hacker collective Anonymous claimed to have obtained police officers’ phone records and threatened to release them. Unlike the majority of comments about Serial or The Staircase, posts about Making a Murderer have been full of blame and fury.
The best that can be said about the current state of affairs is that more people than ever are actively engaged in learning about the justice system and its failures. But as they gather around these cases, viewers are just learning to confront their collective helplessness. It is not surprising that, for a lot of people, elaborating unusual theories proves a lot less distressing.
Laura Marsh is an editor at the New Republic.