In the run-up to the release of Jim Sheridan’s true-crime series Murder at the Cottage: The Search for Justice for Sophie, the biggest talking point was that the family of Sophie Toscan du Plantier asked Sky to remove their contributions.
When they agreed to take part in the programme, they believed it could help achieve long-awaited justice for their murdered loved one, but instead felt it focused too much on Ian Bailey – the man convicted, in absentia, of voluntary homicide by a French court and sentenced to 25 years, despite a lack of concrete evidence.
True-crime podcasts and documentaries have been accused of exploiting victims and their families by simply recounting events already known and offering nothing new, but some have also had a significant impact on ongoing inquiries, leading to investigations being reopened – and even convictions being overturned.
In an interview on RTÉ’s Today with Claire Byrne yesterday, former garda assistant commissioner Pat Leahy admitted that Sky and Netflix played a role in the decision to undertake a full-scale reassessment of the murder of Ms du Plantier outside her holiday home in Schull, Co Cork, in December 1996. New witnesses came forward with information after the series were broadcast.
It is the third time in 20 years that such a review has been announced, and amateur sleuths will no doubt be taking to social media to try solve one of Ireland’s biggest murder mysteries once again.
But could Netflix’s Sophie: A Murder in West Cork and Sky’s controversial series join the list of productions that made a difference?
From podcasts that have resulted in arrests, to films that have seen murder charges overturned, true-crime programmes across the globe have led to cases being reopened, new witnesses coming forward and even retrials being ordered.
Released in 1988, film The Thin Blue Line looked at the life of Randall Dale Adams, who was convicted and placed on death row for the murder of a police officer in Texas. His sentence was based on the testimony of a teenager named David Ray Harris, who was suspected by many to be the actual perpetrator.
Six months after the film aired, Mr Randall was released from prison after 12 years and his sentence overturned. Harris was later executed by lethal injection for another unrelated murder.
In Australia, a murder trial is currently ongoing after a man was arrested on the back of a successful podcast that uncovered new evidence.
Hosted by Hedley Thomas, The Teacher’s Pet looked into the disappearance of Lynette Dawson, who vanished in 1982. The podcast became a massive hit, reaching the number one spot on the podcast charts in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK. Mr Thomas examined the police’s reactions to the incident, and subsequently Ms Dawson’s husband Chris Dawson was arrested and extradited to Sydney.
He is now standing trial and has pleaded not guilty to the crime.
The lead investigator in the case told the court this week he was concerned that Mr Thomas may have contaminated evidence through his podcast, and was cautious about the reliability of witnesses who had appeared on or listened to the podcast.
Another American production that prompted the reopening of an investigation is podcast Serial.
The family of Hae Min Lee, whose murder was at the centre of Serial’s first series, spoke of “reopened wounds” when the convicted murderer sought a retrial after the podcast became a hit in 2014.
Adnan Syed was granted a retrial in 2016, but that decision was overturned, while an appeals court vacated his conviction in 2018, ruling that he had received ineffective legal counsel. However, that decision was also overturned in 2019.
Syed, who is serving life in Maryland for the 1999 killing of his girlfriend, still insists on his innocence and is seeking a sentence reduction.
Forensic tests were later conducted as part of a HBO documentary series following up on the case, and the tests did not find any traces of Syed’s DNA on samples taken from Ms Lee’s body and car during the investigation.
In March this year, prosecutors agreed to conduct new official DNA tests on the evidence used to convict him.
Some shows have also brought about a real-time reaction.
A day before viewers sat down to watch the final episode of The Jinx on HBO, Robert Durst, the man who was the subject of the programme, was arrested.
In 1982, the wife of the eccentric New York real estate scion disappeared. She had reportedly told family members he had become emotionally and physically abusive towards her, but the case into her disappearance went cold. Eighteen years later, police received a tip-off and announced they were reopening the case, officially a missing-persons matter.
Investigators were due to meet Durst’s friend, Susan Berman, but she was found dead at her home in Beverly Hills after being shot in the back of the head.
The mini-series investigated the unsolved disappearance of his wife, the murder of writer Susan Berman and the 2001 death and dismemberment of Durst’s neighbour in Texas. He confessed to the latter but claimed self-defence and was acquitted.
The Jinx used security footage, media footage, police interviews and archived footage, but during the conclusion of the fifth episode, Sareb Kaufman, Ms Berman’s stepson, contacted the documentary makers asking them to review material left by his stepmother after her murder.
In it, he highlights an envelope from Durst to Ms Berman sent in March 1999. The envelope’s block letter handwriting matches and contains the same “Beverley [sic] Hills” misspelling as an anonymous envelope sent to police in December 2000 to alert them to Ms Berman’s murder.
Durst agreed to be interviewed for the series, and after going to the bathroom, apparently unaware that his microphone was still recording, he makes a rambling, off-camera statement to himself, ending with, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
In October 2021, he was sentenced to life for Ms Berman’s murder.