True Crime’s Innocents

Rob Hutton
The Startup
Published in
6 min readDec 16, 2019


An article by Andrea Denhold critiquing the recent popularity of the true crime genre, using the example of the popular podcast My Favorite Murder, made the rounds on social media lately. Denhold seems to have struck a chord with many progressives suspicious of the genre’s rise. (Of course, true crime has always been popular, but only recently has it become both popular and culturally respectable through formats like Netflix documentaries and public-radio podcasts.)

In some ways, however, Denhold’s argument strikes me as odd. She argues that true crime ultimately upholds the criminal justice system, using as examples moments in My Favorite Murderer where the hosts emphasize the threat of murder by a stranger and cheer on the execution of criminals. By her account, true crime is just a dressed-up version of procedural television, where the world is scary but the bad guys get their just desserts from noble cops.

But this ignores the way in which contemporary true crime is based on narratives of innocence and false imprisonment. The two series which were most responsible for the genre’s rehabilitation and popularity amongst the tote-bag set are NPR’s Serial and Netflix’s Making a Murderer. Both series are about men in prison for murder, Stephen Avery and Adnan Syed respectively, and both strongly suggest that they shouldn’t be. More recently, APM’s In the Dark has attracted widespread acclaim for its examination of the case of Curtis Flowers, who it argues was wrongfully convicted of a quadruple-homicide due to prosecutorial misconduct.

Denhold does acknowledge these stories, but dismisses them as simply variations on a theme: “In this self-reflective turn, the lines between the heroes and villains of crime stories are much fuzzier, but the stories still lean on the premise that if the science could be improved, the resources spent, or the bad actors weeded out, the system would work, truth would be known, and justice would be served.” This is true enough, but somehow it seems insufficient to deal with the central role that narratives of innocence have played in true crime’s revitalization. Serial and Making a Murderer are not the exceptions that prove the rule. They are the rule.

So I think it’s worth examining the innocence narrative in greater detail. At its best, this narrative allows true crime to examine larger issues, such as the way law enforcement often targets marginalized people (of the above-mentioned series, two deal with racial minorities and one with an economically-disadvantaged man.) At its worst, the innocence narrative becomes a one-sided melodrama that marginalizes both the truth and systemic critique.

These stories typically begin with a fairly straightforward account of a grisly crime — the official story. The protagonist, a journalist or, in the case of Making a Murderer, a defense attorney, then proceeds to poke holes in this narrative until everything the listener thought they knew is invalid. Witnesses are discredited, evidence is revealed to be faulty, and the initial horror at the murder quickly fades into the background to horror at false imprisonment.

(It also seems worth noting that the crime in question is always a murder. In the contemporary political climate, it’s hard to imagine a podcast that casts doubt on an accusation of rape or even assault. A living victim makes things much more complicated.)

These stories go into exhaustive detail debunking each aspect of the case, often focusing on dry minutia. Serial spends a huge amount of time talking about Adnan’s cell phone records, while In the Dark deals at length with prosecution route witnesses. Watching Making a Murderer at times resembles jury duty. And yet these stories are phenomenally popular with general listeners.

Keeping the audience’s interest through this amount of detail requires a strong sense of detail. The accused is sympathetic and obviously innocent — Making a Murderer and In the Dark both heavily feature interviews with concerned relatives of the prisoner. Against them is a villainous, institutional figure, personified in Making a Murderer by the police department, who the sympathetic defense attorney accuses of framing Avery, and in In the Dark by DA Doug Evans, who has been found guilty of racial discrimination. (Serial expresses more uncertainty as to Syed’s guilt, but host Sarah Koenig still says she “finds in favour of the defense” and criticizes the case’s prosecutors.)

That these narratives are simple does not mean that they are wrong. In the Dark, for instance, presents a genuinely compelling case that the case against Flowers was mishandled at the very least, and that racism almost certainly played a part in his conviction. But the need to present a heroic good-versus-evil narrative often leads to a one-sided, overbearing presentation. Making a Murderer in particular has been criticized for omitting some of the most compelling evidence against Avery.

At their best, these narratives can call attentions to injustices that would otherwise be too local or obscure. In the Dark, for instance, makes a genuine case for not just the innocence of Flowers but the power of racial prejudice within the law. But at other times they can adopt the tactics of the sleaziest defense prosecutors. The worst element is always when they discuss alternate suspects. All of a sudden, all the benefit of the doubt that’s given to the convicted is suspended, and any circumstantial evidence is excuse to point the finger of suspicion at a different person. In the Dark goes so far in its most recent episode to suggest an unconvicted man was likely guilty because of his drug habit, and ask him point-blank if he committed the murders — tactics it would surely decry if applied to Curtis Flowers.

Here we see where Denhold’s one-sentence critique is definitely applicable. These texts don’t question the instruments of the criminal justice system, such as the death penalty, and allow their viewers to think that these instruments are simply being wielded by the wrong people against the wrong people. By focusing on cases where they can argue absolute innocence, true crime narratives leave alone the vast majority of criminal justice cases, in which people are convicted of things they actually did, but punished overly harshly or in counterproductive ways.

This is not simply a case of propaganda influencing innocent viewers and listeners. Rather, audiences seem to seek out stories of persecuted innocents. Stories without this kind of narrative hook are greeted with indifference — witness the less-successful followup seasons of Serial, one of which attempted a more wide-ranging look at American judicial institutions, or the obscure first season of In the Dark, which investigated police incompetence and the long-lasting effects of a murder whose victim and perpetrator was clear from the beginning of the broadcast. These stories had the same staff and execution as their more popular siblings, but audiences didn’t find them engaging without the familiar innocence narrative.

I think this reflects our larger cultural moment. We — at least the well-educated liberal “we” who listen to podcasts and watch Netflix documentaries and read Slate articles — are coming to the realization that something is deeply wrong with the American criminal justice system, and perhaps prison as an institution. But we’re not quite ready to let go of the crime-and-punishment worldview that we’ve been raised on, one that’s reinforced in countless TV shows and movies. So we tell ourselves that prisons are only a problem because they’re full of people arrested for marijuana possession, or because of racist prosecutors locking up innocent black people.

True crime narratives of innocence nicely fulfill this desire. They help us to reconcile our suspicion of the criminal justice system with our resilient belief that guilty people should be punished. Perhaps this is a flaw in the genre itself — its need to focus on specifics prevents a real institutional critique, at least in a form where true crime’s audience would be interested in it. But those who are moved by such stories to call for reform should at least maintain that call for people who are not so entirely innocent.