Un-Making a Murderer: New True Crime Sensationalism and the Criminal Justice System

55 Am. Crim. L. Rev. Online 77

David Costello* 

From its inception, the true crime genre has sought to elicit an emotional response from its viewer. This emotively provocative approach–formally known as sensationalism–still serves as the genre’s distinctive cornerstone. In contrast, the canon’s purpose has shifted dramatically with time, ranging from religious promotion to penal reform to pure commercialism. And yet, despite the genre’s many motives, historical true crime stories did not aim to meaningfully influence their underlying criminal cases. Instead, the canon’s authors used the accused’s specific circumstance to promote general societal reformation. Nevertheless, recent resuscitations of the genre sit as “impromptu branch[es] of the judiciary,” calling into question settled verdicts and affecting the outcomes of their chosen cases. The genre’s resurgence–known as the New True Crime–changes venue from the courts of justice to the courts of public opinion and carries along with it real-life implications. The canon’s newfound influence raises questions: Is the New True Crime different from its predecessors? If so, what affects does it have? And, should steps be taken to mitigate possible negative effects?

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