Media

How the Podcast “In the Dark” Took on the Criminal Justice System

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Whether it’s stories of celebrities behaving badly, serial killers hunting for victims, or unsolved mysteries from decades past — and whether those stories are told on TV, in print, or through our earbuds — these tales are ensnaring America in a true-crime obsession. Over the last few years, the series Serial, Making a Murderer, and The Jinx proved the commercial viability of the genre. Today, mainstream television auteurs such as Dick Wolf and Ryan Murphy are tapping the headlines for stories, while Hollywood titans like Quentin Tarantino are turning to age-old crimes for inspiration. Netflix, meanwhile, seems to be cornering the market for true-crime documentary series with Wild Wild Country, The Staircase, and Evil Genius. 

If the above projects are turning true crime into mass entertainment, the podcast In the Dark is bringing a journalistic rigor to the genre, most recently through the case of Curtis Flowers. A black man on death row for a 1996 quadruple murder in a furniture store in Winona, Missouri, Flowers and his case are the subject of season two of the blockbuster podcast from American Public Media. Season one, which aired in 2016, explored the horrific story of Jacob Wetterling, an eleven-year-old Minnesota boy whose abduction, sexual assault, and murder went unsolved for 27 years. Critics raved. Vox called it “better” than Serial. For season two, which ends this week and has been downloaded over 12 million times, host Madeleine Baran and her team spent a year reporting Flowers’s case from Mississippi. 

In the first episode of season two, Baran lays out the stakes. Flowers’s first three trials — in which he was convicted and sentenced to death — were all appealed, with the Mississippi Supreme Court overturning the convictions due to prosecutorial misconduct by District Attorney Doug Evans; numbers four and five were declared mistrials from hung juries; and after trial six ended with Flowers once again convicted and sentenced to death, his lawyers are working on a direct appeal. As Baran notes in the podcast, assumption of Flowers’s guilt generally falls along racial lines: White people APM spoke to often thought Flowers was guilty, and black people thought he was innocent.

“There’s certainly this question of whether this man has been wrongfully convicted,” Baran tells the Village Voice. “There’s also a related question about power of the prosecutor, and whether the prosecutor is abusing his power.” When framing the story, Baran pits Flowers against District Attorney Evans, whose trial conduct was ruled unconstitutional three times by the Mississippi Supreme Court. It’s similar to the approach APM took in season one: According to Baran, she and her team aim to investigate “powerful people or institutions who are potentially misusing their power or are doing things to harm people who have less power than them.”

For example, in Flowers’s case, investigator John Johnson, at the district attorney’s office, was responsible for gathering evidence, and his sparse notes claimed that many people had shared information relevant to the case. One person he interviewed, according to the notes, believed Flowers had a gun. And many more he interviewed said that Flowers wore the type of shoes — Fila Grant Hills — that left footprints at the murder scene. In the Dark tracked down seventeen people mentioned in Johnson’s notes, all of whom said that information attributed to them in the notes was wrong.

As listeners learned, Evans’s case against Flowers was built from the following evidence: 1) Witnesses who testified they saw Flowers walking in Winona the day of the murders; many of them later changed their stories; 2) a gun that was allegedly never found, though the final episode raises questions about that; and 3) a jailhouse snitch (a notorious violent criminal who, as the podcast reveals for the first time, received leniency with other charges — information that was withheld from the jury).

“I see evidence of a different kind,” noted Baran in episode two. “Evidence that law enforcement was willing to rely on testimony from people who couldn’t plausibly remember what they saw in any kind of detail; evidence that law enforcement was willing to pressure people; and evidence that so many of these people were just plain scared.” Each episode goes on like this: Baran and other producers — Samara Freemark and Natalie Jablonski — examine each piece of circumstantial evidence, until it’s conclusively clear that Evans’s case doesn’t hold up. Furthermore, they discovered that Evans had eliminated potential black jurors at disproportionate rates throughout the Flowers case. In a remarkable feat of investigative data journalism, APM’s team went through more than 100,000 pages of records before discovering that potential black jurors were 4.4 times more likely to be struck from the rolls in Evans’s district than were potential white jurors.

What sets In the Dark apart from other true-crime-style programs is that it doesn’t focus on the mystery of who committed the crime, like Serial did; it doesn’t focus on innocence, like Making a Murderer; rather, it turns its gaze to the actors and institutions of the criminal justice system and how they wield — often unaccountable — power. “We really don’t think of ourselves as doing, like, a true-crime thing,” says Baran. “We’re not interested in a whodunit for our team. We’re interested in stories that are about accountability.” In her view, what In the Dark is able to add to the ever-crowded space of true-crime podcasting is the ability to “report to conclusion…doing enough work to be able to figure things out where you do not have to equivocate about what is going on.”

Baran emphasizes the importance of exploring criminal justice issues that often are underreported. By examining what went wrong with the Wetterling case, and why it had taken the Stearns County Sheriff’s Office close to thirty years to solve it, In the Dark was able to show that this particular law enforcement agency was grossly incompetent — one unable to solve multiple high-profile crimes, including cases of abduction, murder, and disappearance. In shifting the focus away from the subjects of the criminal justice system and toward the actors that determine their fate, In the Dark tells a conclusive and compelling whodunit of a different kind: one in which elected law enforcement officials are the guilty ones.

Curtis Flowers is still sitting on death row, and the investigative reporting from APM could be useful in his post-conviction appeal, since it establishes new evidence that a jury has never heard before. Last week’s penultimate episode describes a potential Brady violation, which could be grounds for a new trial. In June it was announced that, due to In the Dark’s reporting, a petition had been started to recall Evans as district attorney. If wrongs can be made right, and the corrupt can be held accountable, Baran and her team will have succeeded. “The only reason we do this work,” she says, “is so that people know about it.” 

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