As the singer faces fresh investigation after a controversial new series, it’s clear that documentary-makers the world over hold the key to righting the ‘shocking things happening in plain sight’
As R Kelly’s fall from grace continues – amid fresh allegations of psychological and physical abuse detailed in the Lifetime series Surviving R Kelly – the role TV documentaries and podcasts play in reopening apparent cold cases is being reassessed, too.
The R&B star – who has been accused of subjecting women to mental, physical and sexual abuse, and of operating a “sex cult” – is the latest figure to face fresh investigation after series shed new light on their cases. Following the premiere of Surviving R Kelly, prosecutors in Chicago and Atlanta are seeking new information from potential victims of the singer who have not yet come forward. (R Kelly has consistently denied any wrongdoing.)
In the new golden age of TV and podcasting, one of the byproducts of the boom is an increased workload for police detectives who are being asked to re-examine their files after new evidence emerges on the small screen. It’s the true crime renaissance that has really opened the floodgates. Errol Morris’s film The Thin Blue Line, which was released in 1988 and told the story of Randall Dale Adams, a man falsely accused of murder, set the template for documentaries as a wrong-righting instrument. (Adams’ cases was re-examined and he was released a year after the film came out.)
Making a Murderer, The Keepers, The Staircase, Evil Genius and The Jinx have continued that tradition. Making a Murderer, the Netflix sleeper hit that launched in December 2015 and became one of the streaming giant’s most well-known shows, focused on Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey, who are both serving life sentences for the murder of the journalist Teresa Halbach. The first series triggered public outcry over their treatment by every branch of the US justice system, although neither man has had their convictions overturned and the second series followed them as their appeal options slowly run out.
Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx sought to implicate rather than exonerate its subject: the elusive real estate heir Robert Durst, who has been ordered to stand trial for the murder of his friend Susan Berman. The final episode of Jarecki’s series captured Durst on a hot mic, apparently confessing to the murders. Durst will stand trial for Berman’s murder later this year. He has denied the charge.
Podcasting has had the biggest hit rate when it comes to forcing officials to revisit cases. Serial, In the Dark, The Doorstep Murder and, most recently, The Teacher’s Pet, have all sought to right apparent wrongs.
Like Making a Murderer, Serial’s protagonist Adnan Syed – the Baltimore teen convicted of the kidnap and murder of his former girlfriend Hae Min Lee in 2000 – became a cause célèbre, with SNL parodies and column inches dedicated to the dubious prosecution case that sent him down. Syed is awaiting a new trial after a Maryland judge vacated judgment following the podcast.
In the Dark looked at the case of Curtis Flowers, an African-American man from Mississippi who was tried six times for the same crime by a white prosecutor, in a case that shed light on racial bias in the deep south. The Teacher’s Pet, meanwhile focused on the mystery surrounding Sydney housewife and mother-of-two Lynette Dawson, who disappeared in the early 1980s. After the podcast cast doubts over the case, her husband Chris Dawson was charged with her murder in December, creating one of the biggest Australian news stories of the last decade.
In the Dark’s Madeleine Baran told the BBC that the podcast-makers are not trying to replace the role of the police, and are simply journalists reporting the facts they find. “We have an advantage in that we’re not the prosecutor and we are not the defence,” Baran said. “That is really important – you need to be calm with factors going either way.”
That search for balance is what drove Sarah Koenig and the Serial team, who returned last year to investigate the Ohio court system. Not by focusing on one case but by looking across multiple prosecutions to see how justice works in the US. The findings proved just as popular as the Syed case, with more than 1.4 million people downloading the first two episodes of its third season right after it was released.
“I’ve had this urgent feeling of wanting to kind of hold open the courthouse door, and wave people inside,” said Koenig. “Because things are happening – shocking things, fascinating things – in plain sight.”
As the R Kelly prosecutors gear up to investigate the star again, we could be about to witness the power of TV and podcasts to sway the scales of justice once more.