I enjoy a good true crime story, so you might say that I live in the best of times. Behold the podcast revolution, which offers any number of true crime tales, “Serial” being the one that “broke through” and has created many imitators. And behold Netflix, whose “look at all the innocent people locked up in jail!” series—“Making a Murderer,” “The Staircase,” and “An Innocent Man”—have created a healthy skepticism about the fairness of our criminal justice system.
But for years there have been plenty of true crime shows that favor the prosecution. “Forensic Files,” for example, with its inimitable narrator Peter Thomas, offered 22 minutes of scientific instruction on how the good guys captured the bad guys. (Some turns out to be junk science these days, by the way.)
“Cold Justice” looks specifically at unsolved cases with the hope that one week of made-for-TV investigation can present enough evidence to the district attorney for an arrest. And, of course, fictional versions of these kinds of shows have sprung up aplenty. “CSI” was essentially a fictional combination of “Forensic Files” and Sherlock Holmes.
So what we have are contrasting looks inside the nebulous, scandalous, and at times wondrous world that is the American criminal justice system. If you only listened to one side, the side that paints the American judicial system as thoroughly broken and fraught with injustice, you will leave feeling utterly hopeless. If you only listened to the other, you will leave incredibly frustrated that the wheels of justice move as slowly as they do, with rare moments of celebration when an actual criminal is proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
Maybe most people listen to only one or the other. I happen to watch “Cold Justice” and listen to the “Wrongful Conviction” podcast. “Cold Justice” is a flawed program, both as a television product and because of it assumes that a team of two to three experts can crack a case that no one else could for years on end. Also because it focuses on “cold” cases, it has an unusually high burden of difficulty.
The “Wrongful Conviction” podcast exists to demonstrate that it really isn’t that hard to put innocent people in jail and far too many of our prosecutors and DAs convict the wrong people to satisfy the demands of justice from a scared public and antsy voters.
If you watch “Cold Justice,” you appreciate the unique burdens on those who are actually trying to solve crimes. They often lack the expertise, funding, and time to conduct thorough investigations. There is often insufficient evidence at the crime scene to pass the burden of proof, especially if the criminals have watched a few episodes of “CSI” and remembered not to leave fingerprints behind.
Witnesses can give contradictory statements. Suspects have a “right to remain silent” and the right to have a lawyer present, even at the state’s expense. The burden is, as it should be, on the investigator to re-create all of the circumstances surrounding the crime so that there is no “reasonable doubt” as to who committed the crime.
If you listen to “Wrongful Conviction,” you realize how wrong that process can go. Investigators get tunnel vision and narrow in on one suspect, ignoring important clues and evidence. They coax confessions out of innocent people who will say just about anything to get out of the interrogation. They do not formally arrest a suspect so they don’t have to read them their Miranda rights, or they take the time to ingratiate themselves with a suspect, earning their trust before turning the tables. It is undeniable that a certain, unknowable number of investigators, prosecutors, and DAs shortchange the process and commit willful acts of injustice.
So which one is the most accurate account of what is taking place right now in the world of criminal justice? Well, surely, no one show or series of shows can tell the whole story. Each podcast or show has a particular point of view, a narrow focus that really doesn’t balance out the good with the bad.
But watching both shows can provide insight, such as: You do not have to talk to the police. People really do confess to crimes they did not commit. The words “I want a lawyer” are among the most powerful four words in the English language in America. And many crimes go unsolved.
We should expect, in a sinful world, that dealing directly with sin would be a complete mess. That we get justice from time to time is probably a miracle. Conservatives, who tend to be “law and order” types, should listen to those who have been wrongfully convicted, and should possess a healthy skepticism of the police state we are becoming. And more education say, in civics classes, on the rights we possess to remain silent and have an attorney present might serve the innocent well.
In the meantime, I am not convinced that it is open season on the innocent in America. Yes, civil asset forfeiture is criminal and there are more than enough cases of injustice to go around. But the burden of proof remains with the prosecution and, given all of the unsolved crime in our nation, that burden remains high.
So while I am glad to learn about injustices done by investigators and prosecutors and I do hope for reforms, I am also aware that there are many more investigators and prosecutors who follow the law and do not seek a conviction without good evidence first. Perhaps the overall lesson is, listen to both sides. Criminal justice is complex and broken, and no narrative can possibly tell the whole story.