Podcasts: The newest tool in a detective’s arsenal?
When investigative journalist Sarah Koenig began her podcast in 2014, she wanted to tell the story of Adnan Syed, a man sentenced to life in prison following a shoddy police investigation. But no one, not even Koenig, could have imagined what would happen next. Eight years later, on Sept. 19, 2022, the Circuit Court for Baltimore City vacated Syed’s conviction and released him after 23 years in prison. Many have credited Syed’s release in large part to Koenig’s podcast, “Serial.” On Oct. 11, 2022, prosecutors dropped charges against Syed.
“Serial’s” debut carved out a new category of podcasting—true crime. Today, there are hundreds of true crime podcasts, many of which, like “Serial,” have successes far beyond audience entertainment. They have brought attention to less-known murders or disappearances, advocated for changes in criminal policy and given victims and their families a platform to share their stories. “Crime Junkie” and “My Favorite Murder,” two continuously top-ranked true crime podcasts, have raised thousands of dollars for justice-related charities including End the Backlog and Black and Missing, Inc.
Some podcasts have even uncovered new evidence that ultimately led to solving cases. “The Teacher’s Pet,” a podcast hosted by journalist Hedley Thomas, explored the 1982 unsolved disappearance of Lynette Dawson. Thomas’s investigation led to new evidence connecting Lynette’s husband to her disappearance. Within months of the podcast’s release, her husband was charged with her murder.
Podcaster Chris Lambert started “Your Own Backyard” after seeing a billboard for a missing California Polytechnic State University student, Kristin Smart. Lambert’s interviews for the podcast led police to new witnesses and information that eventually resulted in the arrest of Smart’s friend, Paul Flores, and his father, Ruben. On Oct. 18, 2022, a jury convicted Paul Flores of murder in the first degree for Smart’s death, while Ruben was acquitted of being an accessory to the murder.
Even police departments have been inspired by the influence of true crime podcasts. When the Newport Beach Police Department in California began its department-led podcast “Countdown to Capture,” it hoped to reinvigorate the public’s interest in finding the lead suspect in the 2012 murder of Quee Choo Lim “Q.C.” Chadwick. Peter Chadwick, Q.C.’s husband, was arrested shortly after her murder and released on bail while he awaited trial. In January 2015, Newport Beach Police discovered that Chadwick had fled the country. After having no luck finding him through traditional police methods, the Department started the podcast in September 2018. Less than a year after its release, a listener of “Countdown to Capture” called in a tip that led police to find Chadwick in Mexico City.
While it is easy to sing the praises of podcasts as up-and-coming crime-solving tools, some experts worry about their impact on the defendant’s right to a fair trial. David Wilson, Professor of Criminology at Birmingham City University, has expressed concern that podcasts might too powerfully shape public perceptions of a case, and most dangerously, of an alleged perpetrator. Marilyn McMahon, Deputy Dean of Deakin Law School, said “podcasts can present a great challenge to the fundamental legal presumption that a person is innocent until proven guilty.” While defendants have the right to the presumption of innocence for defendants in a court of law, the power of the court of public opinion cannot be easily dismissed.
As more true crime podcasts come onto the market every day, podcasters will be challenged, not just in finding new and mysterious cases to engage their audience, but also in balancing the victim’s right to have their story told, the public’s right to receive information, and the defendant’s right to a fair trial.