“You’re talking about another human”: can true crime ever be a force for good?

The high-profile murder of Sarah Everard has put the voyeuristic genre under the microscope this year. James McMahon heads to CrimeCon and finds a community at a crossroads

“If you’re quick, you can catch the ‘Are Killers Born Evil?’ talk in Exhibit A, the main room behind the elevators. It’s going to be really good I think,” says the woman manning the registration desk. “Or we’ve got Deanna Thompson talking a bit later on. She’s amazing. Did you see her Netflix series, Don’t F**k With Cats? – about the guy who was suffocating cats on the internet? I loved that. Do you like dogs?”

I’m sorry?

“Do you like dogs?”

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They’re alright.

“Because if you like dogs, we’ve got a police dog demonstration in the basement…”

Oh, right.

“They’re adorable. Have a lovely day!”

NME is attending CrimeCon UK 2021, a two-day event being held at the Leonardo Royal Hotel & Spa in St Paul’s, London. It’s the first time the true crime conference has been held in the UK since the brand’s inaugural US event in 2017. COVID may have seen off the organisers original plans to debut in June, but with approximately 450-500 attending across this autumn weekend – the majority of whom are women – the take-up has remained healthy.

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No surprise there. Seven years on from the record-breaking success of 2014’s Serial – the smash hit podcast hosted by investigative journalist Sarah Koenig – true crime remains as popular as ever. The weekend’s sponsor is Crime + Investigation, the dedicated true crime TV channel which debuted in the UK a year on from Serial. Next to the table where NME receives its accreditation are promotional bottles of hand sanitiser, bearing the station’s name. “Keep your prints clean”, reads the ledger.

And yet fate, the cosmos, but more so the evil that men do, have conspired to create an environment in which the arrival of CrimeCon UK could be seen as problematic. In this very city, the names of two recent victims ring loud. One is Sarah Everard, murdered by a serving police officer in March of this year. The other is Sabina Nessa, killed just a week before CrimeCon UK opens its doors. When it does, the name of the first missing, recently found murdered, Gabby Petito is trending on social media. The community of amateur sleuths which CrimeCon exists to serve were either helping search for her alleged killer Brian Laundrie by scanning amateur footage shot in Wyoming national parks (he has since been found dead) or muddying the search, depending on your perspective.

Cecil Hotel
‘Crime Scene: The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel’ is one of this year’s most-watched true crime series. Credit: Netflix

“I’ve always been interested in true crime,” says Nikki, 26, who’s travelled up from Middlesbrough for the weekend and who we speak to in the merchandising area of the conference. “People think I’m a bit weird for being interested in it, but I think all of this stuff is fascinating. I think it’s important to remember victims and to fight for them to see justice.” This, we concede, is difficult to argue with, though Nikki’s point might be negated somewhat by it being made in front of a stall selling Ted Bundy Christmas cards and kitchen decorations bearing the face of notorious necrophiliac and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer, reading: “I’m having someone over for dinner.”

And yet, there’s also a stall for Refuge, a charity fighting to rescue women and children from domestic violence. Admirable stuff, and they’re not the only vendor in attendance with a worthy purpose. This duality between caring and crass can be seen across the event. In the ‘Are Killers Born Evil?’ talk, the forensic psychologist Kerry Daynes is giving victim-focused analysis of a string of high-profile crimes. As Nikki says, she’s fascinating. She’s also empathetic – everything she says contains nuance and warmth. She’s joined on the panel by true crime author Geoffrey Wansell who argues that “evil exists” and “most coppers know when someone’s guilty”. Somewhere in the American South, the now exonerated West Memphis Three may well be sighing, frustratedly.

CrimeCon UK is a good snapshot of where true crime finds itself in 2021. It’s a genre with good intentions that can achieve results. The podcast Up and Vanished, hosted by genre doyen Payne Lindsey, resulted in arrests in the decades-long cold case of missing Georgia teacher Tara Grinstead. Then there’s Madeleine Baran’s podcast In The Dark, the second season of which resulted in the exoneration and release from death row of the wrongfully convicted Curtis Flowers. But it’s also a genre that can’t work out whether its focus is activism, journalism or merely entertainment.

Maura Murray
Maura Murray’s disappearance has been documented in a number of hit TV shows. CREDIT: Alamy

Few know this better than Julie Murray, the older sister of Maura Murray, true crime’s ‘favourite’ missing person case. Maura went missing aged 21 on February 9, 2004, after crashing her car near Woodsville, New Hampshire, USA. Since then, every facet of Maura’s life up to that point has been raked over, analysed, with theories that range from the sensible to the speculative, sensational and beyond. Writing for Boston magazine in 2014, the journalist Bill Jensen wrote, “Now, at least online, it often seems as there’s no such thing as a cold case. But when Maura Murray disappeared, the internet was in its infancy. There was no YouTube and no Twitter. On the day Maura went missing, Facebook was five days old. And so you can read the history of her case as a parable about the evolution of online sleuthing.

“My family tried our best to try to stop it and give her some level of dignity. But there’s so much harassment, and bullying, and trolling [around the discussion of her case]. It’s all under the guise of an industry where you can publicly humiliate somebody. To see it happen to my sister was so hurtful. Her reputation has been destroyed. She’s been called a ‘sociopath’, a ‘slut’. Her sexual history is on the internet. She had disordered eating – that’s all on the internet. She would be mortified to learn that she’s being talked about in this way. And there’s nothing I can do to stop it. Because people want that. They want that shame.”

Some loved ones of victims see the true crime genre as a poisoned chalice – one they must drink from if they stand a hope of seeing justice. When Sarah Turney suspected her father Michael Turney as being responsible for the disappearance of her older half-sister Alissa in 2001, she was told by Arizona Police that she should turn to the genre to heat up the cold case. A campaign on TikTok, her podcast Voices For Justice, even appearances at CrimeCon, eventually led to her father’s arrest last year. She’s become increasingly vocal in her call for ethics in the true crime space. “I don’t need to be quiet and grateful to get press as much as I once did,” she says. “Now I can say, don’t do that, don’t say that – you’re talking about another human.”

@saraheturney

Hear the entire story on The Voices for Justice Podcast free on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. #justiceforalissa #voicesforjusticepodcast #fyp

♬ original sound – Sarah Turney

True crime isn’t a new genre. Truman Capote’s 1966 non-fiction novel In Cold Blood, concerning the 1959 murder of four members of the Clutter family in Kansas, USA, is now 55 years old. And, within a world getting more violent (or at least, via the ubiquity of the news agenda, one perceived to be) it’s not going anywhere either. It’s overdue a reckoning about what it is and what it wants to achieve.

We go see the dogs in the basement. They really are adorable.

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