At this point it feels like there are far more true crime and criminal justice podcasts than I could ever listen to. Though it’s probably not true, it feels like there are more criminal justice and true crime podcasts than there are podcasts of any other genre. And many of them follow a similar formula, one derived from the podcast that started the boom, Serial. The formula is this: an intrepid journalist tries to discover the truth of case, either a possible wrongful conviction or an unsolved murder. Conviction seems like it is going to be one of these podcasts, with a slightly different approach – there’s an intrepid journalist but this time somebody is already on the case, a private investigator. What happens subsequently is why Conviction stands out among so many true crime podcasts.
The difference here is that it’s the private investigator, and the system he fights against, not the case itself, that really is the subject of the show. This decision to focus on him instead does a number of things that elevate the podcast.
First, much like in season 3 of Serial, the focus is on the system rather than just one particular wrongful conviction. I do believe that focusing on the system is a very important thing for criminal justice storytelling, given that basically all wrongful convictions have come about due to systemic problems in the criminal justice system (sometimes in addition to other issues).
But more importantly, this podcast exposes a crucial problem when the justice system is failing – the problem of other actors. There have basically always been defense attorneys, but Private Eyes are not quite as old. And media coverage – especially podcast coverage – of wrongful convictions is arguably much more recent. As the public, we like to assume all of these actors are well-intentioned and honest. And though most of them are likely well-intentioned, many of them may not be as objective or unbiased as we like them to be. I listen to tons of criminal justice podcasts and assume most of the people involved are doing their best to be fair and honest. But what if they’re not? Or, rather, what if they don’t know how to be or they’re not aware that they’re not?
That becomes the central question of the show: what happens when the Private Eye attempting to expose corruption in the justice system is as potentially as corrupt as the system he is fighting against? It’s a fascinating question that the podcast lets stand, which is something I really admire. The show admits a need for people like this PI, but also acknowledges the many, many flaws in his methods. (Flaws that, if you are like me, you were getting very concerned about earlier in the show. For example: this guy leads every single witness he has ever interviewed.)
I assumed this show was about a wrongful conviction. Rather it’s about what happens when someone has convictions but they might be wrong. It’s a neat twist on the genre and well worth your time.