Under the Son of Sam law, criminals are not allowed to profit from their crimes by selling their story. Even after they served their time and if they managed to get out, it is illegal for murderers to write books recalling the grisly details of their crimes. And yet… why do we allow other people to exploit their crimes for their own profit?
I haven’t really thought much about it until I was listening to the latest Sword and Scale podcast regarding Christopher Watts, a man who murdered his pregnant wife and two daughters. To others, the family seemed like a perfectly, photogenic family with the dream house and all, but apparently he was abusive, cheated on his wife, and the family was actually struggling financially. It always bothered me how the host/narrator of the show seemed to describe the state of the victims with glee, but it was particularly disturbing this time around when Mike Boudet described the victim’s unborn child as well as her underwear for no reason except maybe to add more titillation to the broadcast. I know it’s subjective in my part, but I imagine him almost licking his lips as he describes the pictures which were paraded around by tabloids like the Daily Mail. It crossed from being informative to being almost pornographic in its exploitative nature.
Now, I’m no fragile flower. I have no problem consuming violent and even bizarre media, but when shows like Sword and Scale market themselves about true crime, I would imagine it’s about the details of the case and how it was put to rest, not about the gory details or overdrawn subjective commentary. Also, the fact that the show praised the work of the polygraph expert in the case tells me that the show couldn’t care less about the workings of the law and how justice should be pursued.
Polygraph tests are inadmissible in almost every jurisdiction in the United States. No one can be forced to submit to a test, and they are proven many times to be inaccurate and open to manipulation. In the Watts case, the suspect volunteered for a test where he was interviewed by the agent in ways that suggested she had more insight regarding the truth in his heart. She was practicing pop psychology with the atmosphere of law enforcement. They were in effect interviewing him without a lawyer and pressuring him to confess to crimes under tremendous pressure. Granted, he was a horrible human being who happened to be guilty, but what if the next person being interviewed by the agents was an innocent person? As Mike Boudet described the polygraph expert, she was like a mongoose strategically catching a cobra. How nice. That mongoose would also be catching innocent animals using the same set of skills and loose ethics. Protections for suspects are designed for both the innocent and the guilty. Sword and Scale seems to not realize this as the host colorfully condemned the rather easy target.
The purpose of these shows is not to inform the public or to promote justice. Their purpose is to entertain and sell more subscriptions to Blue Apron or Dollar Shave Club. And really, what’s the attraction that these shows are working on? What is the bait with which they are attracting viewers and convincing them to push subscribe on their phones? Is it the workings of the law and justice, or is it just the scandalous details of the crime? Is it the feeling of superiority after the downfall of the perpetrators? There can be a fine line between good shows and exploitative garbage, and I really don’t have a problem with true crime shows or even fictional crime dramas, but when it lingers on gory details, unnecessary subjective interpretation, and disregard for the implications of the actions of law enforcement, then it becomes really, really problematic. Instead of the detailed investigation of crimes like Sarah Koenig’s Serial, you get the shoddy analysis and proselytization of Nancy Grace. It makes for poorer, ill-informed citizens.
And of course, there are still real victims of these crimes. Victims whose loved-ones just got delightedly reminded again of how the victims were killed and the state they were in when they were found.