True Crime Distorts the Truth about Crime

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In November 2007, a British college student named Meredith Kercher was stabbed to death at her rented flat in Perugia, Italy.

You probably don’t remember this, or if you do, you’re not sure why. The murder of Kercher was a particular sort of tragedy: senseless and terrible, but also terribly ordinary, the kind of story that makes headlines for its shock value but then fades from view for its lack of mystery. The killer, a man named Rudy Guede, had an extensive criminal record. His bloody fingerprints at the scene left little question as to whodunit.

Except: By the time those prints were identified, the truth had taken a back seat to a more sensational narrative, one invented and vigorously promoted by the Italian police.

In their telling, it was Kercher’s roommate, an American exchange student named Amanda Knox, who had killed the young woman during some sort of satanic sex game gone awry. Knox and her boyfriend, Raffaelle Sollecito, were tried separately from Guede, convicted of murder, and spent four years in prison before being released on appeal in 2011.

And that story you probably do remember.

“What happened to my roommate was a horrible thing that happens to women all over the globe. She was at home, she was going to bed, and somebody came into our home and raped and murdered her,” Knox says. “But that story was completely lost.”

Knox is nearly a decade removed now from the days when her face was front-page tabloid fodder. Today, she’s the creator of a new podcast miniseries called Blood Money that explores the ethics and history of true crime; she’s also a wife and mother. Our phone conversation for this article was punctuated by the sound of her preschool-aged daughter fussing in the background. And yet the tabloid-headline version of Knox is still the one people think of when they hear her name.

“You’re captured in amber in the worst experience of your life, and nobody really wants you to evolve outside that moment in time,” she says.

Knox’s false imprisonment for a crime she didn’t commit was a global news story in its own time, but it’s also become something more than that: an odyssey, a legend. It’s not just a real tragedy; it’s true crime.

In its transformation of violence into a tabloid-ready narrative, true crime has the power to shape our collective understanding not just of violence, but of the systems we build to adjudicate it—if not of our concept of justice itself.

Murder Most Foul

There are tens of thousands of murders every year in the United States. Most will never rise to the status of true crime. They’re too base. Too easy. Too ordinary. They’re barely interesting enough to make the news, let alone inspire a documentary, a podcast, or a Lifetime original movie. For this, you need something more than a case of police incompetence or a human life cut tragically short. You need gore and guts. Sex and violence. Mystery, brutality, a young and photogenic victim who sparks sympathy and imagination alike, someone who can stand out against a macabre landscape already littered with bodies and stained with blood. This is an attention economy, a place where the best story wins.

The true-crime storyteller’s agenda, equal parts pulp thriller and morality play, speaks to the genre’s long and complicated entanglement with real-world acts of violence. It is not a modern phenomenon; indeed, true crime as a storytelling form dates back to a time when executions were public spectacles, when wars were fought face to face and hand to hand, and when violence was, if not ubiquitous, then an often unremarkable presence on the landscape of daily life.

In the premodern era, true-crime stories were told in the form of murder ballads, folk songs which detailed notorious crimes from their bloody beginnings to their tragic denouement—usually with the satisfying conclusion of seeing the killer hanged or burned alive. With the advent of the printing press, those ballads could be reproduced as pamphlets and broadsides, often accompanied by woodcut illustrations that left little to the imagination.

A history of true crime published by Pamela Burger at JSTOR Daily notes that then as now, the killings that were memorialized in stories and songs had to be a cut above the ordinary: Audiences were most interested in “domestic or sex-related murders, women’s criminal activities, and particularly bloody assaults.” Even then, storytellers liked to punch up the drama by putting words in the mouths of victims; it was not unusual for a ballad to include verses from the perspective of a murdered woman or child, begging to be spared.

The True-Crime Boom

Today we are living in a true-crime renaissance, an explosion of the genre across multiple mediums and formats. What was merely macabre in its original form can be outright ghoulish in the digital age. Those traditional murder ballads, for instance, have been replaced in present day by terrifying TikTok videos featuring the uncanny, A.I.-generated avatar of a murdered child narrating the story of his or her own brutal death.

But that’s only the beginning. The usual slate of nonfiction books, Dateline documentaries, and ripped-from-the-headlines Law & Order plotlines have been joined by a universe of podcasts and documentaries, conventions and forums. There’s also a whole new category of scripted TV dramas in which the true-crime world becomes a character unto itself. The Hulu series Only Murders in the Building follows a trio of bumbling amateur detectives (played by Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez) as they investigate (and simultaneously podcast about) suspicious deaths in a New York City landmark luxury apartment building; Based on a True Story on Peacock and starring Kaley Cuoco tells the tale of a true crime–obsessed housewife who blackmails her plumber, a serial killer, into making a podcast about his “work.”

True crime is a cultural juggernaut. As such, it’s been accompanied by a cavalcade of anxieties about the impact it might be having: on society, on victims, and on us, its most devoted fans. Plug the words is true crime into a search engine, and a host of auto-fill options pops up:

Given the demographics of the true-crime audience—murder shows are to the wine mom contingent what World War II documentaries are to boomer dads—the most pressing concern is invariably ethics, specifically when it comes to the intersection of a true-crime addiction with progressive politics. A passion for murder shows, a commitment to justice: Can they co-exist?

The Ethics and Agenda of True Crime

True crime has an unfortunate propensity to exploit the victims who serve as its main characters, as Knox notes in her podcast Blood Money, even as it purports to offer them a voice. “You see storytellers approaching victims, assuming what their perspective is,” she says, drawing an analogy to the way prosecutors will solicit victims to speak at sentencing hearings—but only if they’re willing to say certain things, to play a certain role. “Sure, center the victim, as long as it’s furthering the agenda of this other person.”

Knox’s status as a victim herself—in this case, of an obsessive prosecutor and a dysfunctional legal system—earns her a certain amount of goodwill in her capacity as a true-crime storyteller. She says she tries to earn more by letting victims take the lead. Undoubtedly, this approach is shaped by her own experiences with the media after being released from prison: “One of the things I had to face was how the world had taken over the narrative of who I was,” she recalls. “I had no agency and no claim to my story, or my quote-unquote character.”

Knox’s approach creates an interesting listening experience. The stories she tells are not sensational, but they are uncomfortable, lingering with the victims as they meander or stumble their way through a story that a more traditional (and less ethical) podcaster would have pared down to a few slick sound bites.

Implicit in Blood Money is an indictment: of the true-crime content machine, of the people working within it, and of the listeners who sustain it. A number of Knox’s interview subjects are angrier at how their stories were dealt with by the media than they are at the criminals who victimized them in the first place, and it’s not hard to see why. One woman, who was sex trafficked by a manipulative scam artist who infiltrated and preyed on single women in the Mormon community, stays utterly collected as she describes being seduced, abused, and raped, only to break down when she reaches the part where she shared her story with a production company that utterly misrepresented it: “Whatever humiliation he wanted me to feel, this television network completed the job.” Even in the hands of the most careful storyteller, there’s no nonautobiographical version of these stories that isn’t at least a little bit exploitive.

Perhaps this is why the true-crime world has spawned another category of story: the kind we tell ourselves about why we keep tuning in. Some of the more popular justifications are self-serving to the point of absurdity, particularly when it comes to the fact that true-crime fans famously skew female. It’s not uncommon to hear it said that women seek out these stories for noble reasons, even as a means of survival: wresting power away from the patriarchy, making sense of a world in which they exist under the constant threat of violence. (This theory of true-crime fandom also ignores the inconvenient truth that men are both the perpetrators and victims of the vast majority of violent acts.) Everyone wants to be a hero or, barring that, at least a victim; nobody wants to be a voyeur.

Here our passion for true crime becomes complicated. The empowerment fantasy of true crime—the notion that there is something ennobling about it, or that we are doing activism by tuning in—not only makes mythological figures of real people, real victims, but also glosses over the horror, senselessness, and banal brutality of most crimes.

That’s before we get to the part where true crime so often devolves into team sports: Is she or isn’t she; did he or didn’t he. It’s not exactly political, but also not exactly not political, especially when the criminal justice system often seems to be listening too.

The narrative that popular true crime insinuates into the public consciousness has a way of seeping into the legal system, into courthouses and congresses, shaping policy as easily as it shaped public opinion.

It is perhaps not an accident that the rise of true crime has coincided with a broader push for criminal justice reforms like the elimination of cash bail, the reduction of mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders, and restrictions on the power of police to run roughshod over the accused. Sometimes, this is an unambiguously good thing, one of the few ways to call police and prosecutors to account for their abuses of power; at its best, true crime coexists in the same advocacy space as books like You Might Go to Prison, Even Though You’re Innocent, which seek to educate the public as to just how broken the criminal justice system is. As Knox notes, “People are people, and they don’t just want to hear the statistics. They want to hear the human story”—which is why, in addition to her podcasting work, she’s also become a public advocate for due process protections, including a Washington state law that would make it illegal for police to lie to juveniles during interrogations.

But the contrivances of true crime can mask the legal system’s mundanities as much as they reveal its flaws. And sometimes, things get murky. A good example is Serial: This is the podcast that focused on the 2000 conviction of then-teenager Adnan Syed for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, and which arguably kicked off the current true-crime craze when it debuted in 2014. Serial made a sympathetic figure of Syed, and celebrities of his fiercest advocates. Without it, nobody, including the progressive prosecutor who urged Syed’s conviction be vacated in 2022, would have ever known his name.

And yet the narrative that makes an accused perpetrator into a tragic hero also raises an uncomfortable question: What if we’re wrong? If Syed is in fact innocent, Serial was a compelling story about his victimization and wrongful imprisonment.

But if he’s not, if he’s a murderer, then Serial is guilty not only of not centering Syed’s victim but of ignoring her. Erasing her. Burying her. And when true crime serves as the primary lens through which many people understand the criminal justice system, it is disturbing to realize how much influence a narrative like this holds in the public consciousness, especially when whether or not the narrative is compelling takes primacy over whether or not it is true.

Unlike with Syed, there’s no serious doubt at this point about Knox’s innocence. And yet this is something they have in common. In the hands of the true-crime apparatus, the story of Knox’s arrest and subsequent legal ordeal became the only one being told. Her trial, a spectacle in itself, was also perfectly timed to become a global obsession. It was the subject of breathless discussion not just on mainstream news channels but on nascent social media, and the time difference between the U.S. and Italy meant that Americans following the trial would wake up to new developments every day.

The story had everything: Knox was young and beautiful, on trial for her life. The prosecutor, Giuliano Mignini, looked like he’d been plucked from central casting to play a corrupt and villainous bureaucrat. And his theory of the crime—that Knox had not only murdered her roommate but done so during some sort of demonic orgy—was not just absurd and salacious but also bespoke a level of old-school religious misogyny that allowed Americans the rare opportunity to feel positively smug about our own justice system, which seemed wonderfully level-headed and secular by comparison.

To root for Knox, then, was a matter of patriotism, of feminism, of basic human decency. In 2008, when CBS News aired the first documentary about her arrest and trial (there would eventually be half a dozen of these), I remember watching it, riveted, forgetting all about the plate of slowly congealing Chinese takeout balanced on my knees. It wasn’t just the gruesome details of the murder, or the drama of the trial; it was the relatability of it, the uneasy sense that what happened to her could happen to any one of us. What Laci Peterson was to Generation X, what Gabby Petito would be to zoomers, Knox embodied for millennials.

Everyone knows Knox’s name. Far fewer people remember Kercher’s.

“I can’t tell you the number of times people have asked me, ‘Did they ever find out who killed your roommate?'” Knox says. (Guede was tried, convicted, and served 13 years of a 30-year sentence before being released in late 2021.) “I think that’s one of the reasons why my own wrongful conviction got out of control. The actual story of what happened—which was, a poor black guy broke into my house and raped and murdered my roommate—was not interesting to people. When they got the small opportunity for there to be something more tantalizing and complicated than that, girl-on-girl violence, they just ran with it, because it was a story that they knew would get people’s attention.”

I agree with Knox about this, but I also think this is not the whole of it. Despite their fascination with the macabre, their lust for the gory details, people tune in to true crime for more than a taste of blood. They’re seeking the satisfaction of a tidy narrative, a clean dramatic arc. And while the trial of Knox was sensational, captivating, and lurid, it was also, finally, something else: a story with a happy ending.

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