New Media Adds a New Wrinkle to the Justice System

Written by Ryan Smith |

From the broadcasting of standoffs with police on Facebook to the establishment of police watchdog blogs, new media has, for better or worse, put police under a microscope like never before.

What has not been as widely covered, however, is how new media is affecting individuals on the other side of the law — people who’ve been accused or convicted of crimes. And if a couple of recent developments are any indication of what’s to come as social media, streaming video, podcasts, blogs and YouTube channels become an increasingly larger part of how we consume news, the effect is monumental.

While traditional media, which has been around since the country was founded, has played a role in aiding the wrongfully accused and convicted — most notably in the cases of Randall Dale Adams and The West Memphis Three — the instances have been few and far between. And the effect that traditional media has had on the speed with which the wheels of justice turn has been minimal. In the case of The West Memphis Three, it took 15 years from the time the documentary Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills was released until the wrongfully convicted men were exonerated. (Though there was much less time between the release of The Thin Blue Line and the overturning of Adams’s conviction, his case was significantly buoyed by evidence that had been discovered before the release of the award-winning documentary.)

New media, on the other hand, though still in its infancy, has already made an indelible mark on the justice system with the Peabody Award-winning podcast Serial and the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer.

Serial is by far the most popular podcast in the history of the internet, with more than 100 million downloads to date. Season one, which debuted in October 2014, focused on the case of Baltimore resident Adnan Syed, who, in 1999, at the age of 19, was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.

Before Serial, Syed and the horrific crime for which he was sentenced to life in prison were not well known outside the Baltimore area. But when veteran journalist and former Baltimore Sun reporter Sarah Koenig took an interest in the case and decided to use it as the basis for a weekly true crime podcast, she raised awareness of it — and the dozens of questions surrounding it — among the American public at large.

As Koenig and her team were diligently perfecting the art of the podcast — leveraging a free-flowing, uncensored and stylized new media platform that has existed for little more than a decade— something extraordinary happened. Thousands of Americans became amateur sleuths, spending hours reading through court transcripts and devising theories about what they believed truly took place, as can be observed by visiting one of the internet’s most active subreddits.

Irrespective of Syed’s guilt or innocence, the various questions Serial raised about the case, including about the veracity of the state’s key witness, convinced most listeners that he deserved a new trial. One of them, attorney Susan Simpson, became so engrossed with the podcast that she started a spinoff called Undisclosed. Ultimately, it was Simpson —who had never even heard the names Hae Min Lee or Adnan Syed before Serial — who discovered questions about the cell phone evidence that was used to convict Syed, leading to a judge’s decision to grant a new trial just 17 months after the last episode of season one of Serial aired.

Let that sink in for a moment. A random woman happened to listen to a podcast and, as a result, a man who’s been in prison for 16 years — a man she’s never met — had his murder conviction vacated and, pending the state’s appeal, will soon receive a new trial.

Meanwhile, in Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, Making a Murderer has had a similar effect on the case of Brendan Dassey, one of the series’ subjects. In August, only nine months after Netflix released the documentary series, which was viewed by more than 19 million people during its first 35 days online, a federal judge overturned Dassey’s conviction for the murder of a local woman named Teresa Halbach.

The 26-year-old had been imprisoned since 2007 and had very little hope of ever getting out until Making a Murderer shined a light on the questionable methods used during his interrogation. It seems pretty clear that, in addition to the hard work of Dassey’s lawyers, the resulting groundswell of support for him figured into the decision to reexamine the case. In the end, the judge ruled that the confession used to convict the boy was involuntary, as the then-16-year-old’s constitutional rights were violated when police made false promises during his interrogation despite the fact there was not an adult present.

As Dassey awaits a decision on the state of Wisconsin’s appeal of his overturned decision, season two of Making a Murderer is in production. Perhaps the new season will reach its climax when Dassey is released. Or perhaps the state’s appeal will be upheld, and Dassey will be forced to spend his remaining days in a cell. But regardless of how Syed’s and Dassey’s stories conclude, it’s now clear that new media has carved out an important role in the justice system, and we can expect that role to continue to expand alongside the public’s ever-growing appetite for digital media.