In the US, podcasts can sometimes shape course of justice

WASHINGTON – The release this week of one of the main characters on the hit podcast “Serial” has reignited the debate over Americans’ “obsession” with true crime series and their effect on the US penal system.

When Adnan Syed walked out of the Baltimore courthouse free on Monday, 22 years after being given a life sentence for allegedly murdering his ex-girlfriend, a crowd of supporters greeted him with cheers.

Syed has always denied culpability in the 1999 murder of Lee Hae Min.

Among the supporters was Sarah Koenig, the journalist who in 2014 brought his case to the attention of millions of listeners with her podcast “Serial”. While she never concluded whether Syed was innocent or guilty, her investigation raised many doubts over how the case was prosecuted.

Downloaded millions of times, the podcast was “a pop culture hit”, says Lindsey Sherrill, a communications researcher at the University of North Alabama and the author of multiple articles on the topic.

“People have been interested in true crime as long as we’ve had humans,” she told AFP. “You can find evidence of people being interested in crimes even in the Middle Ages when people would go to see public executions and trials.”

But with “Serial,” it has transitioned from “something that was seen as kind of a salacious or guilty pleasure to something that’s very accepted… So now it’s cool.”

Unsolved murders, failures of justice, mysterious disappearances – podcasts dedicated to true crime have flourished in the wake of “Serial”.

Sherrill has counted at least 5,000 of them, although she says they vary in both nature and quality.

Quadruple murder

Most of them, made by amateur enthusiasts, do little more than “redo a Wikipedia article”, Sherrill said.

But the higher-quality, “more impactful” ones are made by “journalists, or people involved in the law in some way”.

One of the best, in her opinion, is the second season of “In the Dark”, a public radio show that examined the case of Curtis Flowers, a Black man tried six times for a quadruple murder that he has always said he did not commit.

The journalistic investigation, which pinpointed the failings of the lead prosecutor in the case, helped Flowers’s legal team take his case to the US Supreme Court and helped secure his release after more than 20 years behind bars.