In an era where TV crime dramas have become increasingly implausible, shows like The Jinx and Serial have brought a much needed dose of reality to American living rooms and earbuds.
As a former prosecutor, one of my biggest challenges was overcoming the so-called CSI effect, where jurors come to the courtroom expecting forensic magic to solve the case, because that's what happens on TV.
CSI fans expect the police will wave a black light over a crime scene and -- presto! -- the culprit will be revealed. Criminal Minds tells us that if you just have a good psychologist profiling the perp, we can pluck him out of the ether. "Bones" uses amazing forensic archeology to solve cold cases. Jurors, well versed in these shows, expect the cases they adjudicate will have these elements. If not, they wonder, how can the case truly be solved?
But many cases don't involve cutting-edge science or sophisticated psychological profiling. While these are useful tools, in real life, some of the best crime-solving is done by a detective with a notepad and some people skills.
That's exactly what happens in Serial and The Jinx. These aren't your typical 45-minute morality plays, where the heroic officers quickly catch the bad guy or the heroic defense attorney soon frees her (invariably innocent) client. In these serial documentaries, journalists roll up their sleeves and delve deep into the human element of real crimes with tenacity, grit, and most of all, the gift for gab. The best clues are discovered because the journalist relentlessly, endearingly, simply talks to people.
Sarah Koenig, the host of Serial, seems to talk to every person Adnan Syed ever met, and many he didn't. With her melodic voice and tireless cheer, she gets even the most reluctant witnesses chatting.
A key alibi witness refused to get involved. But Koenig wouldn't take no for an answer, eventually broke through the woman's reluctance and uncovered an alibi that wasn't presented at trial. Syed, who was convicted in 2000 of killing his high school sweetheart, now has an extraordinary shot at an appeal not because of brilliant forensic anthropology or DNA evidence but because Koenig knocked on door after door and wouldn't stop knocking until she got the right witness to let her in.
Andrew Jarecki, the director of The Jinx, broke his case the same way. He spent years interviewing every person, it seems, with the slightest connection to real estate heir Bob Durst, from the devoted friends of Durst's missing wife, to the Texas detectives who pulled his neighbor's dismembered body from Galveston Bay.
As a result of all these interviews, Jarecki located a letter written by Durst, in which handwriting and misspellings match the "cadaver note" which alerted California police to the murder of Susan Berman. But it wasn't just the note that turned the case. Jarecki developed a relationship with Durst, got to interview him, and confronted him with the letters. The revelation so rattled Durst that he went to the bathroom a mumbled his infamous confession -- "What did I do? Killed them all, of course" -- caught on a hot mic. The remarkable climax to this years-long mystery came not from DNA swabs or fingernail scrapings, but from a man who just got people to talk.
Of course, criminal investigations don't look exactly like these two shows. Koenig and Jarecki had the luxury of time and resources far beyond those wielded by police and prosecutors on the public payroll and working under speedy-trial deadlines. And these producers were able to talk about issues that are not allowed in the courtroom -- most importantly, what were these suspects like, as people? The fact that Syed's friends believed him incapable of murder is just as important as the fact that Durst's friends were sure he killed his wife. These are the things we find important when evaluating a person's character, which make for a good narrative, and which are inadmissible in court.
But what accounts for the popularity of these shows is the same thing that solves crimes in real life. It is the simple and powerful act of making a human connection.