True Crime Stories in America

In Feature Stories, March 2016 by Annie GrantLeave a Comment

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Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” is exactly what “Serial” fans were waiting for, another story that leaves more questions than answers and requires us to think critically about our justice system and the possibility of wrongful conviction. It was an immediate hit as soon as it landed on Netflix in December.

Making a Murderer

The documentary style series was filmed over 10 years and tells the story of Steven Avery, a man from Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, who spent 18 years incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. He was charged with sexual assault in 1985 and exonerated in 2003 after improved DNA testing showed a different man committed the assault.

After his release, Avery sued the county and officials for $36 million. In 2005, in the midst of this court case, Avery was arrested for the murder of Teresa Halbach. He was convicted in 2007. Avery’s sentence was life in prison with no parole, but it is currently under appeal. His nephew, Brendan Dassey, is also serving a life sentence after confessing to have helped Avery with the crime, though he later recanted.

The debate

The documentary doesn’t argue that Avery is innocent of the 2005 crime, but it does point out the concerns about how it was handled. Avery’s second arrest in the midst of his lawsuit against the county appears to some like an attempt by law enforcement to save their own backs. For 18 years, Avery was hated for something he didn’t do. Could the same thing be happening to the same man once again?

Why we care

How fair is our justice system? The popularity of “Making a Murderer” has drawn attention to aspects of prosecution not often considered by the general public.


This weekly podcast, which first aired in October 2014 on NPR, mesmerized listeners and launched the justice debate.  Made by the creators of the radio program “This American Life,” it was downloaded more than 80 million times in the first six months. In each episode, journalist Sarah Koenig continues the true story of an incarcerated man and how he got there.

What is it?

The first season told the story of Adnan Syed, a Baltimore man convicted in 2000 of his ex-girlfriend’s 1999 murder. He was 17 at the time. He’s been in prison for 16 years and has a chance at a new trial. In his original trial, Syed’s lawyer didn’t reach out to an alibi witness who saw Syed at the time the state says he murdered Hae Min Lee. Additionally, cell phone data was used against him in the trial, but AT&T is now calling it unreliable. “Serial” is not an attempt to exonerate Syed; it just tells his story.

The debate

From the first episode, Koenig’s steady voice draws the listener in. Her narrative points out flaws in the state’s case against Syed and even gives him the opportunity to comment. Hearing the story told piece by piece and in consideration of every angle is intriguing. It’s not typical to see, or hear, how justice is—or isn’t—being served.   

Why we care

Syed has a chance at a new trial; some speculate the attention surrounding “Serial” has something to do with it. The details of Syed’s case have become so well-known, many aren’t satisfied with how it ended. Syed was given a post-conviction hearing, and his lawyers are aiming for his conviction to be overturned.

It’s Happening Here

Wrongful convictions happen everywhere, and North Carolina is no exception.

Organizations like the Innocence Project work to exonerate individuals who have been wrongfully convicted. In many cases this is done by DNA testing.

The North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence oversees Innocence Projects at North Carolina law schools and has helped to exonerate six people in the past eight years.

Dwayne Dail

Time in prison: 18 years

Released: 2007

Joseph Abbitt

Time in prison: 14 years

Released: 2009

Greg Taylor

Time in prison: 17 years

Released: 2010

Willie Grimes

Time in prison: 25 years

Released: 2012

Larry Lamb

Time in prison: 20 years

Released: 2013

Joseph Sledge

Time in prison: 37 years

Released: 2015

Behind the Scenes

By Christa Gala

In all, 13 convicted men have been exonerated in the state of North Carolina. In addition to the six helped by the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, seven more have also been freed:  Darryl Hunt, Levon Jones, Glen Edward Chapman, Alan Gell, Jonathan Hoffman, Henry McCollum and Leon Brown.

WRAL reporter Amanda Lamb covered Dail, Taylor, Sledge, Grimes, Lamb, Hunt, Gell, McCollum and Brown and says these shows don’t always tell the whole story. We wondered what it was like to have a front row seat during the process:

Q. Exonerating through DNA is a relatively new phenomenon; as a reporter who covers courtroom proceedings, what has surprised you the most about it?

A. I’m surprised that it takes so long to have evidence tested or, in some cases, re-tested. The science has come so far in the past two decades, but it still can take years to get the court to order the tests to be done.

Q. What have you learned from covering the topic?

A. I’ve learned that things are not always as they seem, that it’s important to question outcomes in the criminal justice system. It’s just the right thing to do. What kind of a society would we be if we didn’t ask questions and sometimes challenge the system?

Q. Have you ever interviewed any of the exonerated? If so, what did you learn from them? Did their messages have a common theme (grateful to get out, anger) or was each different?

A. I’ve interviewed several of the men exonerated. They all have different messages, different levels of anger and forgiveness. I would say the two most common themes are that they don’t want others to go through what they went through, and they want to find something meaningful to do with their lives now that they’re out. Most don’t hold onto the anger because it is self-defeating.

Q. What do you make of these documentaries? Do you watch or listen to them?

A. I am very interested in them. But I’m well aware they are often told from one point of view. You’re not getting the whole story. Also, just because things were handled improperly during an investigation does not always make someone not guilty. People make mistakes. That’s why we have juries who listen to all of the evidence and make an informed decision. We really can’t make those calls by just watching a television program as much as we would like to think we can.

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