When the podcast Serial became a massive hit we might have been tempted to think of it as a one off. But with the success of HBO’s The Jinx and Netflix’s Making a Murderer it became obvious that there was a renewed retro trend on the loose. True Crime entertainment was back, but it wasn’t really “entertainment” this time around. More in the category of “infotainment” now, these offerings purport to move past education, history lessons or even gruesome titillation. Today the producers of such fare are offering the public a chance to demand justice, whether the results are just or not.
We had another dose of these adventures with the recent spate of O.J. Simpson specials and movies which also did very well in the ratings. This fall we’re going to be treated to yet another series of shocking exposes, this time focusing on the horrific tale of JonBenet Ramsey. CBS is launching a limited run, multi-part documentary on the case and that’s only one of at least four different series and a couple of movies dedicated to reopening the unsolved murder mystery.
The actual 20th anniversary of her death doesn’t happen until Dec. 25, but TV land has decided to get a jump on JonBenét Ramsey coverage. Networks from A&E to NBC have specials re-examining the infamous — and most shockingly, still unsolved — 1996 murder of the six-year-old Colorado beauty pageant queen in the works, with most of the coverage airing in September, with a Lifetime movie retelling of the tragic killing premiering in November. Here’s a detailed guide on the coverage, including the different details each is promising to offer up for viewers still obsessed with the decades-long cold case.
You can get a full summary of the cavalcade of JonBenet stories coming your way at the link and I’m sure that at least a couple of them will prove to be ratings bonanzas for the content owners. But is this really serving any purpose in the interest of justice? I’m not so sure.
There are literally millions of court cases decided every year. How many of them get it wrong or fail to come to a resolution when it seems like the police should be able to nail it down? Sadly there are probably thousands, though the results of a pre-trial in the media don’t always reflect reality. But of those disputed cases, only a “lucky” few will attract the attention of the media, stirring a public outcry which prods the legal system to additional efforts for better or for worse. Perhaps an innocent person who was wrongly jailed will be set free. If so, that’s great. And there’s a possibility that an unsolved case might be cracked. The Hunt with John Walsh has certainly had some success. If that’s the result then it’s fantastic.
But not every controversial case was decided incorrectly even if we didn’t like the outcome. And pushing too hard to find somebody to blame in a tough case can often result in desperate prosecutors dumping even more innocent people behind bars. That’s part of why I find this trend disturbing. In some ways, we don’t want these cases brought up and dragged through the media circus tent again. Reminding us of the occasional shortcomings of the justice process, be they real or imagined, undermines our confidence in the system. It’s painful when someone who everyone thinks is guilty gets off. (Just think of O.J.) The same could apply to any one of far too many unsung individuals who are found guilty based on shoddy evidence. We also don’t want to imagine the cops as anything but cleanly operating public servants because the system relies on them as well. Sadly, we get a few bad actors in blue uniforms too.
Part of the problem here may be a disturbing shortcoming in the criminal justice system itself. It was designed beautifully by the wise heads who chartered our nation, but the founders based the system on some assumptions which don’t always hold true today. In the days before 24/7 media coverage, the first time most people heard of a criminal case was when the jury showed up in the box at trial. They came had a fair chance of coming into their task without preconceptions or biases. Today the media tries high profile cases before the first witness is interviewed and it’s hard to find twelve people who don’t already have an opinion.
Also, the system was built on an assumption that twelve of your fellow citizens would always approach their duties on the jury with an unavoidable devotion to the idea of justice, not some hidden desire to make a political statement. I don’t think the founders ever imagined a system where a group of peers off the street would let an obviously guilty suspect go because the larger cause of social justice demanded it.
Will six movies and series on JonBenet Ramsey actually bring any new clarity or expose evidence which finally sees someone go to trial and be rightly convicted? I suppose anything is possible in a limitless universe, but I wouldn’t hold my breath after this much time. And if it’s not, what will have been accomplished? Is this really entertainment?