Cracking unsolved crimes by making podcasts (The Times, September 2017)

How the post-Serial trend for true crime podcasts is helping solve cold cases and miscarriages of justice

“Please know that you have had an impact, a significant role in this investigation and I am confident that today we have reached the point where we are in this investigation because of that involvement.”

When the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced a breakthrough in the southern US state’s biggest ever missing person’s case, everyone knew who spokesman Agent J.T. Ricketson was talking about. The podcast Up And Vanished, which had clocked up over 10 million listens in the five months it had been broadcasting, had rekindled interest in the 2005 disappearance of 30-year-old schoolteacher Tara Grinstead from the small town of Ocilla, Georgia, and got the whole state talking about it again. The result, in February of this year, was not just new evidence, but a tip-off from Ocilla pharmacist Brooke Sheridan, who revealed that her ex-boyfriend, Bo Dukes, had told her of his role in burying and burning the body after an old schoolfriend and former pupil of Grinstead, Ryan Alexander Duke (no relation) had killed the former beauty queen during an attempted burglary.

Up And Vanished, written and presented by Atlanta-based filmmaker Payne Lindsey, thus demonstrated that true crime podcasts, whose popularity has snowballed since the success of Serial in 2014, can not only inform and entertain its listeners, but help reopen old cases and unearth new evidence and suspects.

Ryan Duke is now set to stand trial for Tara Grinstead’s murder, with his loose-lipped friend Bo Dukes likely to be the prosecution’s star witness despite being charged with several offences himself (and widely suspected of being more involved than he has claimed).

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, another trial is looming, partly due to another true crime audio series.

In April of last year, British-born former Sunday Times journalist Dan Box, crime reporter for The Australian, created Bowraville, revisiting the case of three aboriginal children murdered in the same town in 1990. The resulting publicity has helped secure a new trial for a long-standing but previously acquitted suspect later this year.

“I don’t think we would have got [a new trial] without the reaction that the podcast produced,” Box said last year.

in Canada in 2015, CBC journalist Connie Walker began compiling details of the thousands of indigenous women who had gone missing or been murdered along British Columbia’s ‘Highway Of Tears’, and as well as producing a series of radio and TV documentaries, Walker focused on one 1989 cold case in the podcast Missing And Murdered: Who Killed Alberta Williams? The tips they uncovered led to that case becoming active again, while her reporting on the police indifference to the indigenous community led to the Canadian government’s long-awaited inquiry, announced last summer, into the scandal.

“The media can be so helpful in these old cases,” said Wayne Clary of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s E-PANA unit, which was established to investigate the Highway of Tears murders, and called the Alberta Williams case “very active right now.”

In Sweden earlier this year, Kaj Linna, who had served 13 years in jail for murder and robbery, was freed after a podcast, Spar, uncovered new evidence.

“We are frankly impressed that a podcast could have this kind of impact,” said Anton Berg, the journalist that hosted the show. “We actually helped free an innocent man.”

Other series have had a similar impact. 2015’s first season of Breakdown focused on Justin Chapman, convicted of arson and murder in rural Georgia thanks to a negligent defence case and false witness testimony. Soon after its broadcast, the state’s highest court found that he had been wrongly convicted and Chapman is now a free man after police decided not to push for a fresh prosecution.

As any fan of the genre can attest, true crime has proved uniquely suited to the podcast format, with listeners becoming immersed in the minutiae of old cases and engaged with campaigns to tackle miscarriages of justice. “You can walk people through the investigation with you,” says Amber Hunt, presenter of chart-topping US podcast Accused, which last year took a look at the unsolved murder of student Elizabeth Andes in Ohio in 1978. She too has helped authorities with fresh inquiries, with help from podcast listeners.

As Up And Vanished has shown, it’s the engagement, discussion and hopefully, tip-offs of listeners that can make all the difference. “We’ve heard from people all over the country with direct connections to the case,” Hunt told Wired magazine. “All we need is for somebody to recognize they have information they didn’t know was important.”


Johnny Sharp

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