Why Are We So Obsessed With Murders, Mystery, And The Justice System?

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“This is a collect call from Adnan Sayed, an inmate in the Maryland Correctional System.”

Along with a chilling electro beat, this is how every episode of Serial, the murder mystery podcast that captivated the nation last fall, began. The disembodied, lifelessness of the voice aside, it served an important purpose: to put us in the right frame of mind. At that moment, we knew, Sarah Koenig would unravel the various strands holding Adnan in prison for his alleged involvement with the death of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee.

However, it served another purpose: it told us what fact was not in question. Adnan was in prison. That was not up for debate. Sarah spoiled the entire point of the story in the beginning, there was no mystery left. Or was there? Enter the facts of the case and the drama that kept America hooked for well over a year. Every office, college library, and coffee shop buzzed with the same questions: did Adnan do it? What was Jay’s involvement? Are these detectives blind, they obviously missed something? And quickly, our fascination turned to anger. How could this happen? How could this seemingly good-hearted individual get convicted for murder this way? Is there no justice in this world?

Fast forward one year. Serial is still on the airwaves, but with a new case that doesn’t seem to capture the attention or the heartstrings of the American public. Our Adnan sized hole would quickly be filled with our next murderous obsession, Making a Murderer. Netflix, yet again, connected incredible storytelling with compelling characters in a true crime drama that follows the misadventures of Steven Avery and his ill-fated clan. Within the first hour we find out that our “hero” is a pretty unattractive character by most estimations; he and his family choose to surround themselves with garbage. Really Netflix? You want me to root for this guy?

Then, within the first hour-long episode, we discover the hidden agendas and shoddy detective work that plague Avery’s case. I found myself gasping at the television as he was sentenced and yelling out, “How could this happen in America?” How could justice be so unkind and cruel due to poverty and a lack of education? These are some of the same questions that I asked about Serial.  In both cases I knew the outcome. I know that Avery is currently in jail serving a life sentence and so is Adnan. However, that is obviously not the point of these stories. These tales are about more than just the outcomes, about the murders themselves. They are about justice and that is why we watch them with such obsession.

I believe that there are three emotional levels to watching one of these true crime shows. The first emotion is a sigh of relief. We are relieved that this situation is something that is removed from us, something that we have never experienced. The sigh of relief quickly turns to the second emotion, voyeurism. Since this situation is so far removed from us, we relish the chance to see it play out through the eyes of the victims and the detectives. Some even insert themselves into the story and creatively try to determine what they would do had they been in that situation. The third, and, probably most important emotion, is that yearning for justice as one gets deeper into the story. With our current buffet of true-crime shows, that emotion is quite justified because of the many question marks appear in our brains as the investigations unfold. So many mistakes are raised that it is hard not to wish for justice and exoneration for the defendants.

Where does this deep-seeded wish for justice come from? I believe it comes from the natural human emotion of wanting things to be equitable and fair. Since our youth, our parents have constantly told us to play fair, share, and work hard and we will succeed. Our entire lives have hinged on the thought process that there is balance in the world and that we have the power to affect that balance. Sounds like the same thing occurs in a galaxy, far, far, away….. Our justice system is one way to keep the world in balance However, increasingly, the justice system seems hell bent on keeping things out of balance and rewarding those officials that seemingly stymie the process of truth. As humans, we seek the tools to wrestle with that concept and we continue to watch and listen to these shows in order to be exposed to that grappling. We ever hope that, at the end of the day, what we know about these cases will allow these defendants to have an appeal.

As more of these “lost” cases become uncovered and sensationalized, I hope that their protagonists get that opportunity. I also hope that that yearning for justice extends to individuals that don’t have the good fortune of gaining the attention of a television film crew or a radio news program. There are many individuals that deserve a second look at their trials and I hope that more media outlets give them that opportunity. TC mark

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