I love true crime, which I understand is a weird thing to wrap your head around — kind of like the person, who is also me, that says they love horror movies — but one of the pitfalls of true crime being so popular with mass audiences via podcasts, documentaries, and of course, NBC’s Dateline, is misconceptions and stereotypes abound about the criminal justice system.
Off the top of my head, here are some of the pitfalls people ought to avoid falling into when consuming true crime content, and honestly, come to think of it, these apply to most fictional crime shows as well (in no particular order aside from the first one):
- Refraining from talking, whether it is to the police, prosecutors, or testifying at your own trial on your behalf, does not reflect a guilty conscious. This does not mean someone has “something to hide.” Because … GET. A. LAWYER! The innocent, unfortunately, think they did nothing wrong, so there is nothing wrong with talking to the police. However, that mentality is a sure way to end up in prison for a crime you didn’t commit. Do not talk to the police. Ask for a lawyer, and then shut up. You must protect yourself. The police are not your friends. You’re not being “helpful” to justice by talking to them; you’re being helpful to them by building a case against you. Often, I see Dateline viewers who think it is morally unethical for individuals to not be “helpful” in a police investigation by talking, and to me, the morally unethical thing would be to sacrifice the innocence on the altar of good intentions.
- I love you Dateline, but a persistent stereotype is how flabbergasted they are to report that a murder, even a [insert Keith Morrison’s voice] grisly murder, occurred in some small, sleepy town. Murder can happen anywhere to anyone at any time. I think creating this perception that such things don’t happen here implies that it just happens somewhere else, and so, it isn’t “our” problem. Disabuse yourself of such thinking. Heck, watching Dateline enough, you should know that such murders occur in so-called “small, sleepy towns” often enough to run counter to the cliché.
- Junk science still prevails in our criminal justice system, and it often is apparent even in true crime. Bite analysis, hair sample analysis, handwriting comparison analysis, blood splatter analysis, the use of a polygraph tests, etc. are all junk science. Even fingerprinting isn’t as reliable as people likely think. If one of those comes up, and is taken seriously by the person presenting the true crime content to you, put on your skeptical hat.
- The 9-1-1 call should be dispensed with entirely as a focal point of elucidating whether someone is guilty or not. You cannot accurately ascertain guilt or innocent by how someone reacts to a tragic event, especially within seconds or minutes via the 9-1-1 call. Some will be inconsolable and hysterical, others will be seemingly stoic and calm (but maybe in shock), and still others, may be genuinely calm and in control of the situation. Too many times I see viewers of Dateline (I don’t mean to pick, but that is my main frame of reference!) use the 9-1-1 call to paint a nefarious picture of who they think is the “suspect.”
- Related to this is trying to read the face and mannerisms of a person on trial as they sit at the defense table in the courtroom. In that situation, the person on trial is in a particularly no-win situation: If they show anything, it will be interpreted negatively against them. Smiling? What a psycho. Stone-faced? Psycho. Not looking at the jury? Psycho. Looking at the jury? Psycho. Crying? Psycho using crocodile tears. On and on.
- Just as someone actually caught up, in one way or another, with a crime, ought to not talk to the police, podcasters, Dateline hosts, and so on, should also be skeptical of the police. They can talk to them, but they should do so with much skepticism. Because police have their own narrative of events, and we’ve seen far too many times how such narratives don’t align with the facts. I’m always turned off by a true crime podcaster, for example, who seems to show far too much undue deference to the police. But I also understand the difficulty: Often, especially in places without established journalists, police are the only primary sources of what happened!
- Sentencing. I could do an entirely separate post about this particular pitfall. When you watch a two-hour Dateline episode of a “grisly murder,” and they have the right person, and they are sentenced to something the audience thinks is less-than, they are indignant, agitating for more punitive measures. Or god forbid the person who seems guilty is acquitted due to a mistake on the police and/or prosecutor’s part. Far too many people, in my estimation, who consume true crime, are punitive in their desire for lengthy sentencing outcomes.
- Just because someone confesses to a murder (or some other crime) does not mean they actually did it. We know too much about coerced confessions at this point to continue holding on to this pitfall.
- Related is someone pleading guilty to a crime doesn’t necessarily mean they are guilty, either. That is because 94 percent of cases are pleaded out due to great pressure to do so for a variety of reasons (mainly, our criminal justice system would collapse on itself if more people evoked their right to trial, and had the financial means to do so).
- If the police mention a jailhouse snitch, and that is one of their biggest pieces of “evidence” against someone for murder, you can usually ignore it. The jailhouse snitch is garbage evidence.
That are all the ones I can think of offhand.
Do you have any others?