Stories about crime are more popular today than ever before. Hours of bingeable content like podcasts and Netflix documentary series are gaining thousands of listeners and viewers everyday. One extremely popular category centers on crime, both fictional and true. There are close to 1000 episodes in the “Law and Order” television franchise, and the CBS series “Criminal Minds” ended earlier this year after 14 seasons and more than 300 episodes.
My own personal interest in crime media has slowly changed over the years. When I was younger, I was a voracious reader of mystery novels. I read “Nancy Drew” and “The Hardy Boys” in elementary school, and then pretty much anything written by Mary Higgins Clark and James Patterson as I moved into junior high. I love the satisfaction of completing a puzzle, and a well-written ending to a mystery gives me a ridiculous amount of joy. I eventually started watching crime procedural dramas on TV, and from “Monk” to “Dexter,” I continue to be a huge fan.
Because I love these types of stories — most especially the kind with the resolution tied up in a nice little bow — I became very attached to the assurance that everything will work out okay in the end. Even if something tragic happens, the truth will come to light, and the person who harmed someone else will be held responsible.
As I have grown older and learned about the realities of our justice system, cognitive dissonance has taken over my perception of crime for entertainment. This consumption of crime media began as a benign interest in who-dun-it mysteries, but it eventually ended with the realization of the failures in the system — toward both those unfairly sentenced and the women who are at an increased risk of becoming a victim of violent crime.
In the second season of the “In the Dark” podcast, reporter Madeleine Baran looks at the case of Curtis Flowers, a Mississippi man tried six times for the same crime, despite maintaining his innocence and winning multiple appeals. Baran tried to figure out why a prosecutor would continue to focus so doggedly on one man when there was not evidence condemning him without a doubt. Here’s a hint: Curtis Flowers is black.
This frustrating story told over the course of 12 episodes ends with no resolution. Flowers is still in prison awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court. Sadly, although Flowers’ case is certainly unique in some respects, it is also not uncommon for people to be wrongfully convicted of a crime they did not commit.
There are two seasons of the “Accused” podcast that focus on this exact topic. Season two investigates a case that, after 30 years and an overturned murder conviction, is now considered unsolved. A man named William “Ricky” Virgil was in prison for 28 years before he was exonerated by DNA evidence, and he currently has a civil lawsuit pending against the cities of Newport, Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio.
For those who are interested in more cases like these, The Innocence Project is a non-profit that has expanded to multiple states and has the goal “to free the staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated, and to bring reform to the system responsible for their unjust imprisonment.”
In addition to the failings of the justice system imprisoning innocent people for crimes they didn’t commit, there are also media stories documenting cases where a presumed guilty person remained free or, at the very least, was never charged with a crime.
An infamous Utah case is the 2009 disappearance and presumed murder of Susan Cox Powell. Her husband Josh Powell, who had a history of narcissistic and emotionally abusive behavior, was the only person of interest in the case. Josh moved to Washington state only a few months after his wife went missing in West Valley City. It was there that he killed himself and Susan’s two boys, Charlie and Braden, after refusing to cooperate with the police investigation.
KSL’s Dave Cawley reported on the Susan Powell case in the “Cold” podcast, an in-depth and tragic retelling of this case. When I was finished listening, I felt dejected. It hurts to recognize the signs of spousal abuse Josh Powell displayed throughout the years leading up to Susan’s disappearance. Although investigators felt that Powell was responsible for the disappearance and probable murder of his wife, prosecutors did not think there was enough solid evidence to charge him with a crime. The name of the podcast confirms this conclusion — the case is cold, and has never brought true justice for Susan.
Jennifer Oxborrow, the executive director of the Utah Domestic Violence Coalition was quoted in episode 18 explaining how abuse does not always appear stereotypically violent. “We can be violent in our communication. We can be violent in the coercive control. We can terrorize people without laying a hand on them,” Oxborrow said. “We can do that by threatening to hurt children or animals, by threatening to ruin someone’s career or leave them in a poor situation financially.”
Laura Hensley reported for Global News that consuming a lot of violent or crime-based content can affect people differently, running the risk of desensitization or traumatization. Brandwatch reported that women are more interested in the true crime genre and offered some theories. It may be thrill-seeking, participation in something scary from a comfortable distance. It may also be because women are more likely to be the victim of a crime, and may want to learn preventive measures from others’ stories. A Forbes article recently quoted social psychologist Amanda Vicary about this topic: “More than anything, women wanted to know either the psychology of the killer or specific survival skills they could use to escape one.”
While we discuss how fascinated we are by the stories of crime, we should also talk about the warning signs of violence and abuse. It is important to be mindful of the content we fill our brains with, especially how it might affect our perception of others. I have not completely figured out what it is that personally draws me to media and stories about crime, but I do know I want to protect people. Depending on the story, it is necessary to have one or both of those goals in mind when learning about a crime or criminal in particular. I have had to learn when to take a step back as well — just as much as we must protect each other, we must also watch out for ourselves.
This article has been corrected to reflect the fact that Curtis Flowers is from Mississippi, not Missouri. We regret the error.