True Crime: Podcasts, documentaries, and shows that changed the course of justice

Written By: Kshitij Mohan Rawat | Updated: Sep 23, 2022, 12:25 PM IST

Fictional stories, whether fantasy or horror or something else, are surely fun. But they still spring out of authors' imagination, and are, basically, fictional. To paraphrase a well-known idiom, truth is often stranger than fiction. True crime is a media genre with a long-standing history. There is a certain perverse thrill to be had while reading, watching, or listening to (for instance) chilling stories of serial killers garroting and stabbing their victims and evading the law with ease. But over the last one-and-a-half decade, the genre has especially flourished in podcasts. Nearly every reasonably popular person you know seems to have a podcast, and everyone else is listening to one. Well-made and well-written true crime podcasts both thrill and educate listeners. And then there are podcasts that have had actual, real-world consequences for the better. Case in point: 'Serial', which is enjoying newfound popularity after it provided new evidence that may have helped Adnan Syed go free after being lodged in jail for 23 years for a murder he says he didn't commit. 

Here is a list of some of those, and also true crime documentaries that similarly affected the real world as a bonus. 

serial podcast

Hae Min Lee, a Korean-American high school girl, disappeared in 1999 and her body was found four weeks later. Apparently, she had been strangled. An anonymous source told the authorities that Adnan Masud Syed, Lee's on-and-off boyfriend, might be a suspect, and he was charged with first-degree murder. While the first trial ended in mistrial, the second trial found him guilty and sentenced him to a 30-year imprisonment. Cut to 2014, the 'Serial' podcasts covers the case in some detail, and this leads to a renewal of international interest in the crime. The podcast raised concerns about the way Syed was handed the conviction. Thanks to the fresh evidence that 'Serial' brought to light, a new trial was granted to Syed. On September 19, he was released from jail after 23 years.


in the dark

An American Public Media production, 'In the Dark' had two seasons. Hosted by Madeleine Bara, the series was not only a great true-crime podcast but also had rock solid investigative journalism and in-depth reportage backing its claims and findings. The first season focussed on the kidnapping and murder of an 11-year-old boy called Jacob Wetterling in 1989. The season 2 was about a Mississippi man called Curtis Flowers who had had to stand trial six times for four murders for which he was innocent. He was, thanks to the podcast, eventually released and the state of Mississippi had to pay him $500,000 for his wrongful imprisonment.


Teacher's Pet

This Australian podcast led to the arrest of a 74-year-old rugby player for the murder of his wife -- nearly four decades after the deed. Called Lynette, the woman's body was never found. Her husband had denied anything to do with her disappearance. Created by The Australian's journalists, the podcast painstakingly narrated the details of the case. Reports in Australian media said the case was reopened due to the podcast. 


The Jinx

An HBO true crime documentary miniseries that should serve as the standard for the genre. Co-written and directed by Andrew Jarecki, this superb series delineated the fascinating case of Robert Durst. The man was accused of killing three people, his wife, and two neighbours. While he denied the first two murders, he claimed self-defence in the third. Jarecki, for whom Durst appeared to have an admiration for his film (fiction) 'All Good Things', convinced the man to talk to him. In the finale episode, Jarecki confronts Durst about a piece of evidence uncovered by the documentary, which Durst denies. After the interview, he goes off to the bathroom and unaware that he is still wearing a microphone, mutters, "What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course." Robert Durst was tried and sentenced for one of the murders the day before the finale. 


The Invisible War

This Kirby Dick documentary film dug into the cases of sexual misconduct in the American military. It was met with a widespread acclaim not just from critics but also from lawyers, activists, journalists, and politicians. It also gave courage to eight women who filed lawsuits against military leaders. The film had such a great impact that the then-US president Barack Obama signed a bill to revamp the military's handling of sexual assault cases. 


Framing Britney Spears

One of the biggest pop stars the world had ever seen, the life of Britney Spears has not been easy. She has had substance issues and was placed under a court-mandated and involuntary conservatorship with her father Jamie Spears in charge from 2008 to 2021. This was also a result of her alleged mental health issues. The situation ensured that she was not in control of her finances and her career after the authorities deemed her unfit to manage them herself. This was happening even as she was appearing in public, concerts, and even judging in reality shows. Her fans launched the #FreeBritney movement, asking the courts to terminate the conservatorship that they saw it as unfair. 'Framing Britney Spears' was made the New York Times' Samantha Stark, which described the entire case and how her fans rallied to her defence. Apart from the conservatorship, documentary also talked about all the things she has faced in her career. This included Justin Timberlake's 'Cry Me a River' song in which the unfaithful girlfriend was portrayed as Spears. He had also claimed in an interview that he had sex with her, which contradicted Spears' claim. Following the documentary, Timberlake issued a public apology. 'Framing Britney Spears' also led to support from a number of influential people and celebrities. 


Bear Brook

Covering the murders of the same name, the 'Bear Brook' made sure that a cold case from 1978 disappearance of four females of varying ages, whose bodies were discovered in 1985 and in 2000, had to be reopened. The podcast is also notable in that it explained how the genetic genealogy technique was used to catch the criminal, who had died while in prison for another murder. Later, the same technique was used to catch the Golden State Killer.


Surviving R. Kelly

Disgraced singer-songwriter R Kelly was found guilty in six counts, including three counts of child pornography, by a Chicago court jury. was already serving a sentence of 30 years in another federal trial held in New York in 2021. His litany of sexual crimes were explored in a Lifetime documentary series titled 'Surviving R. Kelly', which received critical acclaim. Not long after, he was charged with aggravated criminal sexual abuse in 2019, and that finally led to his first conviction.