The dark side of true crime

True crime is booming. Streamers pump out hit true crime documentaries, while cable channels dedicate all their programming to the genre. A legion of podcasters, YouTubers, TikTokers and Vloggers have built audiences of millions. They can do a lot of good, too. Forgotten cases can be rediscovered by citizen journalists, and sluthers committed to finding justice for victims can uncover hidden evidence and new suspects in crimes thought unsolvable. 

But true crime has a dark side. Thoughtful creators can build a loyal and large listener base, but for some, resisting the siren song of shock journalism and quick audience growth is simply too enticing to ignore. Driven by sensationalism, conspiracy theories, and irrationality, these creators appeal to our deepest fears and our latent distrust of the justice system. The consequences are all around us.  

In Delphi, Indiana, Richard Allen, the accused murderer of thirteen-year-olds Abby Williams and Libby German, is preparing for trial. On February 13, 2017, the girls were brutally slain on a public hiking trial not far from their homes. Allen has placed himself on the trail at the time of the murders. Police have forensically linked him to the scene with a bullet that matches a gun he owns, and he has reportedly confessed multiple times to multiple people. But evidence is no match for a shocking story, well told. 

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Allen didn’t kill the girls, according to his attorneys. Rather, they were sacrificed by white supremacist members of the neo-pagan religion of Odinism, aided by a cover-up orchestrated by law enforcement. While one might expect that waking the echoes of the satanic panic would meet with derision, certain corners of the true crime world loved it. Recently, Allen’s true crime supporters launched a legal defense fund, advertising it with the hashtag “Justice for Abby and Libby,” the names of the girls Allen is accused of brutally murdering. As of this writing, more than 700 people have donated in excess of $40,000 to the cause. 

In Boston, Massachusetts, the trial of Karen Read drags on. The former financial analyst and professor stands accused of striking and killing her Boston Police Department boyfriend, John O’Keefe, with her Lexus. Read maintains her innocence, but true crime bloggers, YouTubers, and podcasters didn’t need a trial to decide what they thought had happened. O’Keefe was murdered by a fellow officer, and law enforcement was framing Read to cover it up. One popular blogger named Turtleboy—Aidan Kearney in his non-true crime life—became so convinced of Read’s innocence that he launched what prosecutors claim was a campaign of harassment and witness intimidation. While Read stands trial for murder, Kearney now faces at least 16 felony charges himself. 

And then there’s Moscow, Idaho, where Brian Kohberger awaits trial on the murder of four Idaho University college students. Meanwhile, the chair of the university’s history department was forced to file a defamation action against a true crime TikToker who claimed to her 100,000 followers that the professor was the real killer. Her evidence? She saw it in a psychic vision. 

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The siren call of conspiracy is not limited to those merely accused of crime. From Scott Peterson to Adnan Syed to Steven Avery, big budget documentaries and slickly produced podcasts may use misinformation, police conspiracy theories, and emotional manipulation to convince millions their subjects are innocent, victims of a rigged system. 

The financial return is vast, but so are the consequences. The victims are forgotten, their families left to relitigate again and again the guilt of their loved ones’ killers. The faith of the general public in the judicial system is shaken, endangering our communities and making it harder to bring justice to those who deserve it. And it’s not just victims who suffer. Inundated with false innocence stories, many in the public become jaded, and real cases of false conviction are less likely to be heard and less likely to be believed. The voices of the truly innocent are drowned out by the cacophony. 

Identifying the dark side of true crime is easy. Doing something about it is harder. 

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First, the judicial system needs to take notice. Take the situation in Delphi, Indiana. The court in that case issued a gag order, including on the families of the victims. And yet the defense has not been hindered in feeding their narrative to friendly YouTubers, while the family has had to watch, silently, as misinformation spreads. 

Streamers have a role to play, too. They must vet documentaries for facts and evidence, and value a commitment to the truth over a quick buck. The audience for thoughtful, discerning true crime is there. Give it to them. 

Consumers have a responsibility, too. True crime consumers are discerning; when an innocent person is in prison, they want them released, while they want the guilty to stay there. And the proliferation of do-it-yourself podcasts and blogs has had the salubrious effect of giving everyone a voice. But that freedom comes at a cost. Gone are the gatekeepers. If anyone can start a podcast, anyone will. It falls to creators and true crime consumers to police themselves. 

Education and critical thinking are the key. We all love a good yarn, and we are all susceptible to the pull of conspiratorial thinking. We must resist the temptation to be carried away by the latest wave of sensationalism. Common sense still wins out, most of the time. As the old saying goes, when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. And when the man with the bullhorn tells you zebras are on the loose, at least ask for some proof before panicking.

Truth matters, and we all must make truth more valuable than fiction. The most powerful resource listeners have is their time. They should only give that time to those who deserve it. Otherwise, as long as conspiracies and sensationalism bring the clicks and the cash, the cause of justice—and everyone who cares about it—will continue to suffer. 

Alice LaCour is co-host of the weekly true crime podcasts “The Prosecutors” and “The Prosecutors: Legal Briefs.” 

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