The 2010s was the decade that our collective interest in true crime boiled over into a full-on obsession. From the wrongly accused to sympathetic killers we want to be wrongly accused, we’ve been enthralled with any documentary, podcast, or book that treads the dark side of human nature. But over the past decade, there have been several turning points in the way we understand crime narratives — and the way people from those narratives understand themselves. Below, we outline five of the landmarks of the true crime oeuvre from the last 10 years.
The Release of the West Memphis Three, 2011
Rock stars and accused murderers collided at the top of the decade when the so-called West Memphis Three were released after spending nearly 20 years in prison for murders they didn’t commit. The men celebrated their release at a party hosted by Eddie Vedder in Memphis and attended by the likes of the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines.
Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin were convicted as teens for killing three eight-year-old Cub Scouts whose bodies were discovered in an Arkansas creek in 1993. Prosecutors asserted that the boys were killed as part of a Satanic ritual. Misskelley, diagnosed as mentally disabled, confessed to the murders during a questionable 12-hour interrogation, while prosecutors cited the boys’ love of bands like Metallica as proof of their dark tastes. Echols, who had been interested in Wicca — and deemed the Three’s ringleader — was sentenced to death row while the others got life in prison.
Although their trial had been fodder for the “Satanic Panic” moral crisis of the Nineties, their innocence got a second look when Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills was released by HBO in 1996. It was one of the first of many documentaries and books about the murders. Filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky sought to tell a balanced account of the gruesome incident, but they couldn’t helping doubting that the three boys were, in fact, guilty.
“Our filmmaking philosophy was to treat the audience like a jury,” Berlinger said on the 20th anniversary of the film. “You don’t answer every question. The best way to persuade somebody to your point of view is to have this unbiased approach, where you let the audience weigh the information. There’s a lot in the film that makes you question [Echols’] guilt … so if you’re in the audience, you can come to your own conclusion that these guys did not get a fair trial or must be innocent. It’s a much more powerful and persuasive filmmaking experience … more emotional and much more active.”
Musicians were particularly up in arms about the case, especially the idea that the boys’ taste in bands had led them to murder. Paradise Lost even featured Metallica’s music, with Lars Ulrich telling Rolling Stone, “It was the least we could do. They were outsiders who didn’t fit into what that community wanted. I could definitely identify with them. We all could.”
Patti Smith, Henry Rollins, Tom Waits and Ozzy Osbourne were also supporters of the Three; Rollins organized benefit shows, and in 2002, released Rise Above: 24 Black Flag Songs to Benefit the West Memphis Three — a collaboration with Iggy Pop and Lemmy Kilmister.
“The trial reeked to high heaven,” Rollins told Rolling Stone. “I’d find myself up at 3:30 a.m. thinking about Damien. He could have been me. I had those records. I was sullen as a teenager.” Rollins also managed to raise $100,000 for DNA testing by 2005. (Apparently, there was no DNA evidence linking the Three to the murders — instead DNA matched three unidentified people, according to Reuters.)
By 2010, even more musicians and stars took up the cause, including Johnny Depp. Maines and Vedder headlined a benefit in Little Rock with Smith and Depp, while Vedder actively worked with the duo’s lawyer, Stephen Braga, to move the case forward.
Amid new DNA evidence, legal teams for the three men were able to secure their release from prison in 2011 after they all entered Alford pleas — they had to plead guilty, while also maintaining their innocence.
“It’s not perfect by any means,” Echols said at the time. “But at least it brings closure to some areas and some aspects. We can still bring up new evidence and we can still continue the investigations we’ve been doing. We can still try to clear our names. The only difference is now we can do it from the outside instead of having to sit in prison and do it.”
Their release from prison decidedly set the tone for the next decade in true crime — with the right kind of organization, hope remained for the wrongfully convicted. Filmmakers, celebrities and activists were all trying to find the next West Memphis Three, the next falsely accused Everymen who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Interest in cases like the West Memphis Three, in many ways, begat the interest in Adnan Masud Syed — the subject of the 2014 breakout podcast, Serial — although Syed is still considered guilty today and remains in prison. In 1999, the then-teenager was convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, although he still maintains his innocence.
The 12-part podcast, hosted by Sarah Koenig and Julie Snyder, reignited interest in the case in 2014 after they delved into the events that led to Lee’s death by strangulation and Syed’s involvement. In particular, they interviewed a witness named Asia McClain who claimed to have seen Syed in the high school library around the time that Lee would have been murdered. McClain was not interviewed during Syed’s trial, according to the podcast, which also took aim at the competence of his original lawyer, Cristina Gutierrez, who died in 2004.
Serial took a chance on a storytelling style that has since become commonplace: they were doing the reporting in real time. People from the community would get in touch with new leads, witnesses would come out of the shadows, and it wasn’t until episodes were posted on Thursday mornings that listeners would find out exactly where the investigation was going next.
Syed, a well-spoken, mostly even-keeled man, also had his fans — there were T-shirts calling for his freedom, Change.org petitions, and countless articles about his alleged plight. The series managed to stir up enough interest in the case that Syed’s new lawyers filed for a new trial — citing that his right to competent legal representation had been denied, since Gutierrez failed to call McClain to the stand.
There was some movement on the case in 2016 when a Maryland court ordered a new trial, with the Maryland Court of Special Appeals agreeing with the lower court. In March 2019, however, the Court of Appeals reversed that decision, and, in November, the Supreme Court backed them up.
According to Syed’s lawyer, Justin Brown, he’s not giving up the fight. “Two courts have said he deserves a new trial, and then Maryland’s highest court reversed that. We think it’s appalling,” he told NPR. No matter Syed’s fate, it was his story — as well as Koening et al’s imaginative storytelling style — that helped solidify true-crime’s place in podcasts.
Making a Murderer, 2015
Kim Kardashian West’s cause célèbre this past October was Brendan Dassey, a 30-year-old Wisconsin man who loves Orange Crush, John Cena and Catwoman — and who was convicted of murder and sexual assault at age 17. West retweeted a handwritten note to Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers in which Dassey penned a list of his favorite things and asked for a pardon. “Please @GovEvers Read this letter,” the reality star asked Evers — and her 62.2 million followers.
This strange confluence of murder and celebrity came about due to 2015 Netflix series Making a Murderer, a true crime show that made armchair detectives of its more than 19 million U.S. viewers.
Making a Murderer centers around convicted murderers Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. Avery initially spent 20 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit — only to head back behind bars after being found guilty of the murder of Teresa Halbach, a photographer from Auto Trader Magazine who came to shoot some of his old cars.
Dassey, Avery’s nephew, was declared guilty of helping his uncle brutalize the woman. The series, which comprises two seasons, is kind of a one-sided affair, setting Avery and Dassey up as fall men for a conniving local police department. And as police departments came under increasing public scrutiny in the mid 2010s, it was a villain that viewers were ready to embrace.
Still, Avery and Co. are not necessarily the ill-fated men that the documentary might imply. Several details were left out of the docuseries that pointed toward Avery’s guilt, according to USA Today, such as the presence of Avery’s sweat on Halbach’s car; his insistence that Halbach be the one to photograph his cars (despite the fact that she had previously told her employer that he scared her); and the fact that Halbach’s belongings were found near his home. And, despite his best efforts, Avery has been denied a new trial more than once.
As for Dassey, matters are a little murkier. At the time of his confession, he was a teenager — one that functioned on a lower mental level than others in his age group. Many believe that his confession was coerced and that Dassey was confused into telling cops that he helped murder Halbach. According to CNN, the man later recanted his confession and two federal courts called for him to be released or retried. Ultimately, though, those decisions were reversed and the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
Amanda Knox, 2016
From tabloid fodder to speaker for the Innocence Project, Amanda Knox’s saga threw into lurid focus the dark side of our obsession with crime. And her drive to speak up on behalf of other wrongfully convicted individuals, after her release, offered a new blueprint for how to reclaim one’s own story.
As detailed in the 2016 Netflix documentary, Amanda Knox, Knox’s roommate Meredith Kercher was murdered in 2007 when the two were studying abroad in Italy. Knox and her boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, were convicted for the murder, spending nearly four years in an Italian prison before they were both released in 2011. They faced retrial (during which Knox was able to remain in the United States) and were acquitted in 2015. Acquaintance Rudy Guede was convicted of the crime and is currently serving a 16-year prison sentence.
Much like Jennifer Levin — the victim of the 1986 “Preppy Murderer” — Knox was vilified for how she looked and her supposed sexual appetites, despite the fact that she did not, in fact, murder anyone. Her nickname became “Foxy Knoxy,” a dark take on a silly MySpace display name. “She’s a little dork who doesn’t wear matched socks,” her friend Madison Paxton told Rolling Stone in 2011. “I’d never use ‘sexy’ to describe her.” In Amanda Knox, the horror lies not so much in the murder itself, but how the media painted Knox.
Despite how the press treated her, after her exoneration, Knox chose not to retreat from the public eye, instead throwing herself into work with the Innocence Project. “Believe it or not, I actually do feel very at home in a room full of lawyers,” she told the Westside Bar Association at a seminar in 2017. “Before confirmation bias, fake news and echo chambers were a subject of public concern, they were our concerns. The concerns of people like you, who worked in the criminal justice system and people like me, who lived through it.”
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, 2018
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a 2018 book by the late Michelle McNamara, is the next logical step in the true crime craze: armchair detectives taking the wheel and, to some extent, cracking cases that have long gone cold.
McNamara was obsessed with the case of a violent criminal she called The Golden State Killer, a man who was suspected of committing at least 12 murders, 50 rapes and 100 burglaries in California between 1974 and 1986.
McNamara spent years doing her own research into the killer, writing numerous articles and, finally, her book, which goes into exhaustive and oddly beautiful detail about many of the crimes. She died before the book was finished. Her research assistant, investigative journalist Billy Jensen, and her husband, Patton Oswalt, published the book after her 2016 death.
Just months after the book’s release, a suspect was arrested for the string of murders: Joseph James DeAngelo, a 74-year-old retired cop from California. (He has pleaded not guilty.) Retired detective Paul Holes had been on the GSK’s trail since the Nineties, and, thanks to new advances in the field of forensic genealogy — namely, searching public DNA databases for possible relatives of the murderer, then using genealogy techniques to figure out who might be a match — he and other law enforcement officials were able to track down a suspect.
Since that arrest, Holes and Jensen have teamed up for a new podcast called The Murder Squad, in which they aim to continue McNamara’s mission and crack open still more cold cases with the help of eagle-eyed listeners. “I truly believe citizens . . . can help solve the backlog of unsolved murders, violent assaults, and missing persons,” Jensen wrote in his own book, Chase Darkness.
There has also been a string of convictions — from a DJ who murder of a schoolteacher in 1992, to the killer of an 8-year-old girl in 1988 — for suspects who were identified using DNA and forensic genealogy. (This became so popular, in fact, that the Department of Justice had to write new rules for what law enforcement would be allowed to do.)
With its publication, McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark showed that armchair detectives could help solve a case. But since publication, it’s one of her hunches — that Internet DNA databases could make solving some cold cases possible — that might have the biggest ramifications of all.