It’s weird to do a spoiler warning about a real-life case, but just in case, spoilers!
A new podcast I became obsessed with recently was the 20-episode show, Murder in Alliance, hosted by investigative journalist Maggie Freleng.
The podcast reinvestigates the April Fools Day 1999 killing of 26-year-old Yvonne Layne in her home in Alliance, Ohio. Her ex-boyfriend, David Thorne, who she also had one of her children with, was flagged as the killer. At least, the man who paid to have her killed by his friend, Joe Wilkes.
Virtually the entire case hinged on the “confession” of Wilkes, wherein he claimed that he was paid by Thorne to kill Layne. Otherwise, there was no physical evidence linking either him or Thorne to the crime scene. Both were sentenced in the killing and have been in prison ever since.
So, aside from this case being interesting to me because it’s only 4 hours northeast of me, I was intrigued by the case for the same reason Freleng admits to being interested in the case: The Alliance Police Department, which already had a sordid reputation involving drugs and other corruption issues, seemingly botched the investigation.
However, I have to say from the get-go, I feel duped by this podcast. And not because the conclusion didn’t wrap up into a neat bow. I never expected that and life isn’t about neat bows the way police procedures are on television. No, I feel duped because if this podcast venture was done with different assumptions, it would have been one, maybe two episodes, and done.
Let’s say I’ve heard about the case of David Thorne. He’s been locked up more than 20 years for a crime he says he didn’t commit. Wilkes is also proclaiming his innocence. And I know that the Alliance Police Department has a shady, corrupt past. All of that makes looking into this case well-worth it.
But what is the first thing I would do, if walking into the case? My presumption would not be that David Thorne is innocent and then setting out to find any evidence demonstrating as much, like pointing in the direction of another killer or that the police themselves were involved in the murder and/or cover-up.
No, the first thing I do is to suss out whether David Thorne was rightfully convicted. What is the evidence against him? How accurate is Wilkes’ confession? Has Thorne’s story changed over time? Is he the choir boy he proclaims to be? What if I talked to people other than his mother and current wife? The police botched the case, but did they still stumble onto the right killers?
Instead, with all due respect, we go through about 18 episodes before Freleng realizes, wait a second, what if Thorne actually is guilty? Sure, the Alliance Police Department botched the investigation and Thorne likely didn’t have a fair trial our system guarantees, which is wrong, but what if he’s guilty? That’s the first question she should have been asking! I hate being critical because I genuinely enjoyed the hours spent listening to the podcast and the work I’m sure it took, but I don’t understand how that didn’t happen as the first order of business. Again, instead, we got through 18 episodes before it was dropped on us like it’s supposed to be a bombshell that Thorne might actually be guilty for a variety of reasons.
Or to be more specific, the podcast isn’t affirming Thorne’s guilt and conviction, but rather, saying that both a.) there’s no existing evidence pointing to a different outcome, and b.) there are circumstantial pieces of evidence that Thorne seems unable to explain (or even uninterested in explaining).
As I said, I felt duped, to be quite honest. To be charitable, because again, I hate being critical, perhaps the thinking is, what if we showed the world what it’s like to investigate the veracity of a potential innocence project case? That is, what if we showed people the nitty-gritty of what it takes to even legitimately take up a case of someone’s supposed innocence and contra a lot of other podcasts in the true crime genre, what if we can’t actually reach the point of demonstrating innocence? What if this story doesn’t end with someone walking out of jail?
I get all of that and I think that’s a great public service in terms of bucking the expectations of people who consume true crime podcasts and demonstrating how the real world actually operates. But that still doesn’t explain going backward in the journey to uncovering the truth!
Freleng is particularly emotional, I think, at what the “bombshell” is going to do to Sue, who is a woman who married Thorne while he was in prison and who has spent the better part of two decades trying to prove his innocence. I understand the awkwardness and emotional aspect of that, which turned out to be justified because Sue stopped talking to Freleng thereafter. But also, I would have been skeptical of Sue from the get-go! Because she’s his wife! Granted, Freleng and the team she works with from Proclaim Justice, do cross-check Sue’s work and do additional legwork, but gah, I don’t know. I would have kept an arm’s length from Sue in a healthy skepticism sort of way.
To repeat for a third time, I really try to not be overly critical of things these days; it’s just not the vibe I want to put out in the world and far be it from me as an outsider consumer (of a free product, no less!) to suggest how I would do something. But I’m saying, as a journalist who operates in that same sort of headspace, but also has consumed a great deal of true crime podcasts, my presumptions and approach would have differed.
The true value of the show, in my estimation, is the hours devoted to showing how corrupt the Alliance Police Department has been in the past and how they botched the investigation into Layne’s death, and that even if Thorne and Wilkes are guilty, our system is built on presumption of innocence and a fair trial by a jury of our peers. If that didn’t happen, then it should rightly be considered an injustice.
Despite my frustration with feeling duped by the investigation, I do highly recommend listening to the podcast because it’s still a heck of a showcase in investigative work in unraveling the mystery of the case and just how the police botched it and conducted itself.
Also, get a lawyer, people!