Tag Archives: US crime

As Making a Murderer returns, is the obsession with true crime turning nasty?

We cant get enough of cold-case shows such as Serial, especially when they lead to retrials. But while the genre has gone from lurid gore to upmarket investigations, an exploitative undertow remains

I didnt think all of these people would care, Steven Avery says, in wonder, at the beginning of the trailer for Making a Murderer: Part 2.

But people did care; they cared a lot. When the first series of Making a Murderer launched on Netflix in 2015, millions of people around the world were transfixed by the true story of Avery, a Wisconsin man convicted of murdering a local photographer, Teresa Halbach. There was a frenzy of interest about whether Avery had killed Halbach or whether he had been, as the series seems to suggest, a victim of police misconduct. Making a Murderer quickly became a bona fide cultural phenomenon, arguably the biggest true-crime documentary of all time.

Not everyone was thrilled by the documentarys success, however. Ive had 4,000 death threats since Making a Murderer first aired, says Ken Kratz, the prosecutor who helped put Avery behind bars. Ive had packages explode in my office. Ive had my car shot at. He sighs. I suspect all that craziness is going to be unleashed again. The sequel to Making a Murderer comes out on 19 October and Kratz is apprehensive about what news it could contain. Their tag line is something to the effect of: The case is not over yet, he says. Well, when is it over? From my perspective, this case is over.

Kratz may have had enough of Making a Murderer, but the rest of us clearly have not: the sequel has already drawn extensive press coverage. And its not just Making a Murderer. It seems as if many of us cant get enough of murder, full stop. In recent years, true crime has become a pervasive part of popular culture.

A lot of the credit, or blame, lies with the podcast Serial, which followed the case of Adnan Syed, convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 2000. When it launched in 2014, Serial smashed all podcast records. The first season has been downloaded more than 211m times and a third, which focuses on the Cleveland court system, launched last month. It has also been turned into an HBO show, The Case Against Adnan Syed, coming out soon.

Hae Min Lee. Photograph: Handout

True-crime successes continue to come thick and fast. Last year, for example, the LA Times podcast Dirty John, which details the violent web of deceit spun by supposed freelance anesthesiologist John Meehan, was downloaded more than 10m times in six weeks. It has also been turned into a TV show, starring Eric Bana, which will premiere next month.

Meanwhile, there are true-crime TV channels such as Investigation Discovery, with a nonstop schedule of shows such as Evil Twins, Evil Stepmothers and Evil Lives Here. For those who prefer a more hands-on homicide experience, theres an annual convention, CrimeCon, where you can mingle with other murder aficionados at events such as Wine & Crime or test your mettle at an interrogation experience. You can also shop for serial killer swag on Etsy, which boasts a disturbing amount of murder merch, from coffee mugs decorated with names of famous killers to blood-splattered hair-ties.

Michael Arntfield, a former police officer who now runs a cold-case thinktank, notes that our interest in ripped from the headlines stories of depravity is not a modern phenomenon. The genre, Arntfield says, really crystallised in 1842 when Edgar Allan Poe wrote The Mystery of Marie Rogt, a short story based on a contemporaneous killing. Since then, Arntfield says, the genre has been intermittently influential and has come and gone generationally. There has been nothing quite like the quality and quantity of attention were seeing today, however.

Once a guilty pleasure associated with rubberneckers and cheap, gory magazines, true crime has moved out of the gutter, says Jean Murley, author of The Rise of True Crime: 20th-Century Murder and American Popular Culture. It hasnt necessarily become highbrow entertainment, but it has a lot more cultural cachet. People arent ashamed of liking it the way they were 10 years ago. In a virtuous circle, a rise in high-quality true-crime content has created a wide audience, which means that more high-quality content gets made.

Technology has also assisted the gentrification of gore. As Arntfield notes, new production platforms such as Netflix allow for greater experimentation with long-form storytelling. Rather than telling a whodunnit in an hour, shows like The Staircase and Making a Murderer have taken true crime in a new direction which is more experiential.

The Staircase covers the trial of the novelist Michael Peterson for the murder of his wife, Kathleen, who was found dead at the bottom of the staircase in their North Carolina home in 2001. Eight episodes on the original trial were released on French TV in 2004. Another two episodes followed in 2013. After a retrial, three new episodes, together with the 10 previous, were released on Netflix this year. A story spanning almost two decades was condensed into an extremely bingeable but also nuanced series.

As well as changing how true-crime stories are told, technology has democratised who gets to tell them. As Arntfield says, it is relatively easy for anyone with a knack for narrative and an internet connection to dig up an interesting cold case and turn it into a podcast. Access was always the issue before. Unless you worked on the original case, you didnt have access to the information you needed to tell these stories. Now, however, were realising how many stories are out there. Theres a limitless amount of material.

The Staircase. Photograph: Netflix

Should it all be used, though? These arent just stories they are real peoples lives. No matter how tastefully it is done, is it not unethical to transform personal tragedies into public entertainment?

It depends on how you define entertainment, says Christopher Goffard, the host and creator of Dirty John. My aim is storytelling that explores important psychological questions with a respect for human complexity and ambiguity To insist on hard lines between journalism and entertainment is to assume that journalism has to be boring or its not authentic, which I dont buy.

Goffard also notes that true-crime stories can sometimes be more powerful than traditional journalism. One issue at the heart of Dirty John is something called coercive control, which is a form of psychological manipulation that involves things like gaslighting, microsurveillance and isolation of a domestic partner control that masquerades as love. I could have done a story quoting a handful of people who have endured this, and found some experts to talk about it, and it would have been a respectable story and maybe sparked some conversation. But I think the effect is hugely magnified when the story takes you deep inside one familys experience, so you get to hear what it felt like to live it.

Others, however, seem to have spent less time pondering the ethics of true crime.Take Payne Lindsey, the host of another hit podcast, Up and Vanished. In the first episode, Lindsey explains the genesis of the series, which examines missing-person cases. Like a lot of people, I had been pretty obsessed with the podcast Serial, and the Netflix series Making a Murderer, and I thought to myself: What if I made one of those? he says. So I literally just went to Google and started searching.

The satirists of the Onion parodied this sort of self-absorbed approach in a podcast called A Very Fatal Murder. Released this year, it features David Pascall, a narcissistic Brooklynite who decides to parachute into Bluff Springs, small-town America, to solve the death of a pretty young girl called Hayley Price and maybe win some awards in the process. So, what happened to Hayley Price? Pascall asks. And how can I get in on it? Katy Yeiser, the head writer on A Very Fatal Murder, notes that among the many true-crime tropes ripe for mockery is the self-aggrandising host exploiting a young womans death.

Sometimes, of course, true-crime programmes succeed where the authorities have failed and give a voice to victims who have been silenced. These stories arent just being told, they are being re-investigated. The internet allows people to trade theories, hunt down clues and influence the narrative.

One of the best examples was last years Netflix documentary The Keepers, which examined the unsolved murder in 1969 of a Baltimore nun, Sister Cathy Cesnik. The series follows two of her former students, now in their 60s, as they investigate how she was failed by patriarchal systems of power, from the Roman Catholic church to the Baltimore police force.

Sister Cathy Cesnik in 1969. Photograph: Courtesy of Netflix

The Grandma Nancy Drews Gemma Hoskins and Abbie Schaub had been working with the journalist Tom Nugent to try to draw attention to the murder of Cesnik years before the documentary was made; only in 2014 did some film-makers came knocking. The current obsession with true crime, you could argue, helped propel Hoskins and Schaubs years of overlooked industry into the national spotlight.

Hoskins has worked hard to maintain the interest that The Keepers has sparked in the Cesnik case, using social media to crowdsource clues for the investigation. Shes in the middle of following a new lead when I call her at her Maryland home. There were supposedly two hunters hunting small game who found Sister Cathys body. Theyre only named in one article. I want to find them before theyre both dead. Hoskins has a team of about 30 volunteers, recruited via Facebook, trawling the internet in an attempt to identify these hunters.

Already The Keepers has led to important developments in the case. Shortly after the documentary was released, the Baltimore police department started to offer an online form for victims of sex offences related to the events it covered. Its surreal, says Hoskins. Im thinking Pope Francis probably knows who I am! Its hard for me to grapple with the fact that I have a voice now and that people are listening.

Australian podcast The Teachers Pet is another example of true crime making a difference. The podcast, which launched this year and has been downloaded more than 24m times, looks at the disappearance of 33-year-old Lyn Dawson from her home in Sydney in 1982. Nobody was charged in connection with the disappearance.

Hedley Thomas, the creator of The Teachers Pet, says the information that came in after episode one of the podcast aired changed the course of the whole series. Very quickly people started contacting me, wanting to share information and things theyd witnessed, so I had to rewrite the next two episodes. The fact that The Teachers Pet wasnt entirely scripted but unfolded week by week, he says, made a big difference to the material that I started to discover. It made listeners feel that they were an active part of the investigation.

When I first went to the police to see if theyd cooperate, he recalls, they didnt want to have anything to do with the podcast. But during the series, people were contacting me that the police hadnt heard about. Suddenly there was this change of attitude. The police commissioner himself knew he had to utilise the momentum of what was happening and get new information into the hands of investigators.

Lyn Dawsons family, says Thomas, are delighted by the success of the podcast. Lyns brother has said that the podcast has given them the best hope they have ever had that this case will lead to a prosecution, which should have happened years ago. However, not all victims families are so thrilled that old wounds are being reopened. While stories such as Making a Murderer, Serial or The Staircase, which seek to exonerate convicted killers, have been praised for exposing flaws in the criminal justice system, they have also been accused of exploiting the deaths of the women involved and preventing their families from getting closure.

In 2016, the public interest that Serial created in the Adnen Syed case resulted in his conviction being overturned and a judge ordering a new trial. While many Serial fans were ecstatic about this development, Hae Min Lees family lamented the fact that it had reopened wounds few can imagine. In a rare statement the family said: It remains hard to see so many run to defend someone who committed a horrible crime when so few are willing to speak up for Hae.

Appeals by prosecutors have delayed Syeds retrial, but it is looking likely that it will happen soon. This will, no doubt, cause a new surge of media interest and make it even harder for Lees family to make peace with the past. The same is true of the sequel to Making a Murderer. While Halbachs relatives have largely remained quiet about the Netflix series, they have said the show traumatised the family all over again.

Whatever the ethical arguments about true crime, its popularity seems unlikely to run out any time soon. At some point down the line, using a podcast or serial documentary to tell true-crime narratives will become less trendy, A Very Fatal Murders Katy Yeiser says. But true crime will not go away. It will just be told through some other or new medium. We will never grow tired of murder.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/oct/16/making-a-murderer-is-our-obsession-with-true-crime-turning-nasty-serial

Nearly every mass killer is a man. We should all be talking more about that | Gary Younge

After the Toronto attack, there should be a debate about toxic masculinity, says Guardian columnist Gary Younge

From the Oklahoma bombing to the massacre in Norway it is always the same. In the immediate aftermath of mass murder, the initial hypothesis is that it must be a Muslim. And so it was on Monday that, within minutes of a van mowing down pedestrians in Toronto, a far-right lynching party was mobilised on social media looking for jihadis. Paul Joseph Watson, of conspiracy site Infowars, announced, A jihadist has just killed nine people; Katie Hopkins branded the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, a terrorist shill.

But there is a far safer assumption one can generally make. For while a relatively small proportion of mass killers in North America are Muslim, across the globe they are almost all men.

There will be, though, no appeals for moderate men to denounce toxic masculinity, no extra surveillance where men congregate, no government-sponsored schemes to promote moderate manhood, or travel bans for men. Indeed, the one thing that is consistently true for such incidents, whether they are classified as terrorist or not, will for the most part go unremarked. Obviously not all men are killers. But the fact that virtually all mass killers are men should, at the very least, give pause for thought. If it were women slaying people at this rate, feminism would be in the dock. The fact they are male is both accepted and expected. Boys will be boys; mass murderers will be men.

This weeks atrocity in Toronto, where Alek Minassian stands accused of killing 10 and wounding 14, gives us yet another chance to reflect on the destructive capacity of masculinity not least because it may have been the principal motive for this attack.

Minassian is not known to have any strong religious affiliations. But according to his Facebook feed, he identified with devotees of incel (short for involuntarily celibate), which is for straight men who cant have sex despite wanting to and splits the world into Stacys (attractive women who wont sleep with them) and Chads (men who are sexually successful).

It seems innocent and adolescent that blend of pathos and priapism that helped get nerdy boys through high school. Only, Minassian was 25 and hadnt grown out of it, but into it with a vengeance. His last Facebook post read: The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys! All hail the Supreme Gentleman Elliot Rodger!

In 2014, 22-year-old Rodger wrote a screed against, among other things, women and couples (particularly inter-racial couples), before killing seven people, including himself, and injuring 14 in Isla Vista, California. I dont know why you girls arent attracted to me but I will punish you all for it, Rodger stated in a video uploaded before the rampage. Its an injustice, a crime because Im the perfect guy and yet you throw yourselves at all these obnoxious men instead of me, the supreme gentleman.

Alexandre Bissonnette, who killed six and injured 19 in a mosque in Quebec City last year, identified with Rodger and had been Googling him not long before the crime.

Elliot Rodger killed six people and himself in California in 2014. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

With tens of thousands visiting their message boards, incel is hardly marginal though arguably too amorphous and incoherent to dignify with the term movement. It is debatable how widespread the cult of Rodger might be. But the issues of misogyny and inadequacy that drive men to it characterise a far broader and deeper problem that helps to explain male violence.

On the one hand, there is the hatred of women, born for the most part from a sense of entitlement. These men do not just resent the fact that they cant get a girlfriend. They feel women are denying them the sex that is rightfully theirs. They belong to broadly the same demographic as the Gamergate movement earlier this decade, in which male gamers systematically harassed female game developers and media critics, subjecting them to rape and death threats, and publishing details of their personal lives online.

These men, wherever they are, now have more political space than they used to. There is considerable overlap with the American hard right. And they have a role model in the White House in a president who was accused of rape by his first wife, boasts of grabbing women by the genitals, makes up sexual stories about women on the internet, and openly disparages their looks and intellect. In the 2005 book TrumpNation, the future president tells Timothy OBrien his favourite part in Pulp Fiction is when Sam [Jackson] had his gun out in the diner and he tells the guy to tell his girlfriend to shut up: Tell that Bitch to be cool. Say, Bitch be cool. I love those lines.

We dont know what proportion of these men go on to have abusive relationships or if they enter relationships at all. But we do know there is a significant correlation between domestic abuse and mass murder.

An Everytown for Gun Safety report last year revealed that between 2009 and 2016 more than half of mass shootings in the US were related to domestic or family violence. In a third of the public mass shootings during that time period the gunman had a history of violence against women domestic abuse is a more common trait among mass murderers than mental illness.

On the other hand, there is a deep sense of grievance. While most people avoid association with failure, these men are attracted to it. Their inadequacy is central both to their identity and their rage. They are not the men they want or need to be; they do not have the status they feel was their birthright. This is the fault of others and somebody, anybody, must therefore pay. The amok man, writes Douglas Kellner in Guys and Guns Amok, describing the man likely to commit a mass killing, is patently out of his mind But his rampage is preceded by lengthy brooding over failure and is carefully planned as a means of deliverance from an unbearable situation.

While the desire to dominate and the embrace of failure may appear contradictory, they are in fact part of the same pathology. The rage stems from the fact that the very thing they feel entitled to womens bodies, womens lives, womens obeisance is not available to them. They hate the thing they cannot have. And of course they hate themselves for their inability to get it.

If ever there was an illustration of how a system of patriarchy demeans and depletes us all, this is it. Unable to take advantage of the male privileges they believe they are owed, they feel inadequate and grow resentful, and a handful become violent. Often awkward, shy and unconfident, they cannot meet the standards of machismo that patriarchy demands. They think feminism will destroy them. But in fact it is their greatest chance of liberation, since the less women are forced to conform to preconceived notions of femininity, the more space there is within masculinity for them to be themselves. As such, they are not only the perpetrators of misogyny but the products and, ultimately, the victims of it.

Gary Younge is editor-at-large for the Guardian

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/apr/26/mass-killer-toronto-attack-man-men