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Can True Crime Stories Interfere With Old Cases?


Armchair detectives are having high time right now. True crime stories are as old as Ben Franklin. But these days, they're popping up in new places - podcasts, high-end miniseries. The success of the podcast "Serial," HBO's "The Jinx" and the recent Netflix series, "Making A Murderer" have spawned endless Reddit threads and a thousand think pieces. But have they changed what happens in the criminal justice system? Attorney Deirdre Enright has been doing the actual work of these cases. Those of you who listened to "Serial" may know her name. She was one of the people who helped Sarah Koenig investigate the conviction of Adnan Syed. She's director of investigation for the UVA Innocence Project. She joins us now. Thanks so much for being with us.

DEIRDRE ENRIGHT: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: As someone who does this work, do you think all this new journalism/entertainment about true crime is a good thing?

ENRIGHT: So my knee-jerk reaction is that of course it's a good thing in that it calls attention to the plight of our clients, who every day we're doing these cases, like "Serial," like "Jinx," like "Making A Murderer." That's what all of our cases are like. That said, there's the downside, which is once those stories are out there in the public on that level, everyone else becomes an armchair detective as well. And they begin becoming part of the investigation, which of course destroys our ability to control it.

MARTIN: So these kinds of shows, you're saying, can actually do damage to a case?

ENRIGHT: Sure. We could be talking to witnesses and gathering information to draft affidavits to include with our petitions or our writ of actual innocence. And once it's out there, everyone in the world could call them, go by, post a message on their Facebook page, scare them - right? And we can't control when all of the information becomes public. So if people wanted to go and try and shut them down as witnesses in our case, we have no control of that. So in the criminal justice world, it's ideal for us for our information not to be in the public sphere until we file and make it public.

MARTIN: I imagine media has always been a kind of a tool for defenders to some degree. How has that changed?

ENRIGHT: So the media and the media alone is what has generated this interest in the work that we've been doing for years and decades. And I think the public has long believed that our criminal justice system was off in the shadows somewhere doing its job and, you know, spitting out justice where it needed to. And it seems to me that these kind of stories and these kind of cases have created some doubt about the accuracy and the reliability of that system. And that makes people more sympathetic to the work that we're doing and to the - and to our clients stories.

MARTIN: What do you think are the goals of the defender versus the goals of the journalists? Where do they converge, and where do they diverge?

ENRIGHT: There's very different requirements, both legally and ethically. And I think at some points, they can dovetail. So Sarah Koenig was very committed to finding out the truth. And so was I. But my obligations as a lawyer would have been not to reveal that which harmed Adnan if I had just been his criminal defense lawyer. But I was in it for the piece of, can we find physical evidence that could prove his innocence. And whether or not that's Sarah's goal, you know, Sarah was there to tell a story, a truthful story.

MARTIN: Going forward, will you seek out other opportunities like the one that you had with "Serial"?

ENRIGHT: (Laughter) Well, I wouldn't have to seek it out.

MARTIN: People are calling.

ENRIGHT: They won't stop calling. And - and there are clients for whom we are now in a position to say, sure, come look at this. And go talk to him because he can tell you his story as well as I can. And we've got nothing to hide. And now there's no shortage of interest. One thing too - and I should add this because it's another - it's important that people understand this - is that if we -we can file on somebody's behalf. And we can have their convictions vacated. And we can even have them exonerated. And - but without the story being out there in some ways, our exonerations aren't what the client needs because when they leave prison or jail and go off and try and find a job or a wife or whatever they're trying to find, nobody's going to hand somebody an 80-page opinion from the federal district court and say, read this; I'm innocent. What they carry around - and this is all our clients that are out - is the newspaper articles or the, you know, flash drives with the stories to hand to people and say, I didn't do what I was convicted of. And it gets them jobs and friends and relationships. And that's the exoneration in a lot of ways. It's what you all do, not what we do.

MARTIN: Deirdre Enright is a professor of law at the University of Virginia. She's also the director of investigation for the law school's Innocence Project Clinic. Deirdre, thanks so much for talking with us.

ENRIGHT: No, thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.