How true crime shows are impacting the justice system

Trial by TV is criticised by some, but others insist it has the potential to overturn miscarriages of justice that would otherwise go unchallenged

“True crime” has become a hugely popular entertainment genre over the last few years thanks to hit documentary series and podcasts such as Serial, Netflix’s Making a Murderer and more recently The Teacher’s Pet in Australia.

The best-known shows revisit unsolved or contested murder cases and challenge potentially wrongful convictions, leaving audiences outraged at apparent injustices and desperate to know what actually happened.

Some true crime shows have impacted the criminal justice system directly by raising awareness about overlooked cases and helping prisoners secure retrials

But while proponents say they hold the justice system to account, they have infuriated some legal professionals who worry the shows are sensationalist and too simplistic, omitting key information that gets in the way of the story.

How Making a Murderer took true crime mainstream

Perhaps the best known is Making a Murderer, which follows the story of Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey from Wisconsin, USA, who were convicted in 2007 of the murder of Teresa Halbach on Avery’s property.

Filmed over 13 years, the series explores allegations that Manitowoc County police set Avery up to discredit him, as he brought a $36m civil case against them for a previous wrongful conviction.

It also delves into allegations of evidence tampering and prosecutorial misconduct during the Halbach trial, and prompted hundreds of thousands of people to sign a petition to the White House calling for Avery and Dassey’s release in 2015. The men remain imprisoned after several unsuccessful appeal attempts.

So inspired by show was Shima Baughman, a law professor at The University of Utah, that she set up a class based on Making a Murderer last year to teach students about the US criminal justice system. Classes cover issues like ethics, DNA and juvenile rights, and it uses transcripts from the trial as source material. She says Making a Murderer demonstrates “the uncertainty and reality” of the criminal justice system. “It is expensive, unclear, sometimes biased and often unfair for the poor. Making a Murderer has also helped people realise that judges are not always right, nor are lawyers,” she tells Raconteur.

True crime is controversial, but can impact the justice system

None of this gets away from the fact the show was heavily criticised by Ms Halbach’s family, who called it “one sided”, while prosecutors said it left out key information such as the fact Mr Avery called the victim’s mobile phone three times the day she died. But Ms Baughman says some oversimplification was inevitable in a series that boiled down 19 days of trial testimony into 10 hours of television.

“Having read thousands of additional pages of briefs and testimony in the Avery case along with watching the show, I think the show has actually accurately captured the key disagreements between the two sides,” she says.

Some true crime shows have impacted the criminal justice system directly by raising awareness about overlooked cases and helping prisoners secure retrials. Adnan Syed, the protagonist of Serial, was convicted in February 2000 of murdering his girlfriend Hae Min Lee and given a life sentence of more than 30 years. But after Serial became a hit - it has been downloaded more than 100 million times - Mr Syed was granted the right to have his case reheard. Two courts have since overturned his conviction although he remains in prison as prosecutors pursue a counter appeal.

Adnan Syed, whose murder charge has been analysed in the podcast Serial, being escorted from a courthouse in 2016

How true crime has affected public perception of the law

However, Kevin Jon Heller, a professor of criminal law at Soas University in London, does not believe the shows impact the wider criminal justice system. “I think the US criminal justice system is incapable of reform; lawmakers aren’t taking cues from these shows.”

Where they do have influence, he says, is on how ordinary people perceive the criminal justice system. He points to the “CSI effect”, the theory that forensic science television dramas such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation influence American jurors to believe in the “infallibility” of DNA evidence and to expect more of it to convict defendants.

“To some extent that is healthy given the majority of wrongful convictions are because of faulty witness testimonies. Then again, if juries could never convict on the basis of witness testimony alone many guilty people would get off scot-free,” he says.

Shining light on the flaws in public prosecution 

Australian investigative Journalist Hedley Thomas does think true crime shows could have a wider impact, however. His series The Teacher’s Pet investigates the 1982 disappearance of Lyn Dawson, the wife of rugby league player and teacher Chris Dawson. It uncovers details about their marriage, the relationship between Chris Dawson and a 16-year-old schoolgirl, and flaws in the original police investigation.

Most damningly, it highlights the unwillingness of Australia’s Commonwealth Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (CDPP) to pursue the case despite two coronial inquests concluding that Lyn Dawson was most likely to have been murdered by her husband. Mr Dawson has strongly denied killing his wife.

“Public prosecutors mess things up just like any other civil servant, but they are far less accountable,” Mr Thomas says. He points to the fact the CDPP had considered prosecuting the case at least three times in the last 20 years but never went ahead.

“In each of those cases they did an internal review of the evidence but you can’t access their reasoning or the detailed internal legal memos on why they decided not to run the case. If that was another publicly funded body there would be much more transparency.”

True crime shows are enticing people to join legal profession

Since The Teacher’s Pet was released police have excavated the garden of Lyn and Chris Dawson’s old home but no body was found. However, Mr Thomas says the CDPP is considering investigating once more and hopes they will finally lay charges.

As for the criticism of The Teacher’s Pet – some have called it speculative and sensationalist - Mr Thomas is defiant.

“I’m not going to pretend my podcast is going to contain absolutely all the evidence and details. But when I started it there was no prospect of there ever being a prosecution… The family had given up. And if journalism can’t perform a function to help them get justice then what is it there for?”

Daniel Monk, a law professor at Birkbeck University, says whatever your opinion of true crime shows or fictitious legal dramas, they are great marketing for the legal profession. Many of his students first got interested in law through TV shows.

However, he fears such shows may be feeding into a trend of “juridification” in the UK, whereby anyone with a problem starts to think they have a legal claim. The risk is we become an increasingly litigious society like the US.

“Once you turn something into a legal argument it can oversimplify things by putting it into a victim-perpetrator context and grey areas get missed. It is feeding into that idea of polarisation in society and TV programmes are probably reinforcing it.”