| Feb 15, 2023

5 True Crime Podcasts That Advanced Justice and Changed Lives

The power of audio reportage is being used by ethical content creators to elevate the hugely popular genre.

True crime is perhaps the most contentious genre of storytelling. Millions of people enjoy nothing more than settling down in front of the television to watch the latest true crime documentary, or binge-listening to season after season of their favorite true crime podcast. Critics of the genre, though, say that the subject is salacious, idolizes violent criminals, and profits from victims’ trauma.

For a few content creators in this genre, the goal goes beyond ratings, downloads, and cash in the bank. Some true crime podcasts are making a real-world difference to the cases they cover and elevating the standard for other creators.  

The Podcast That Opened the Floodgates

The origin of podcasts can be traced to the 1980s in the form of audioblogs. The medium started to appear in its current form in 2004, when audio players became mobile and gained the capacity to play digital files. In that year, the ex-New York Times and National Public Radio journalist, Christopher Lydon, told The Guardian that podcasting was an experiment. “Everything is inexpensive. The tools are available. Everyone has been saying anyone can be a publisher, anyone can be a broadcaster,” he said. “Let’s see if that works.” It did. There were an estimated 5 million active podcasts in 2022.

A decade after Lydon speculated about the possibilities of the medium, a series now seen as the pioneer of the true crime podcast was released. “Serial” still holds the record for the fastest podcast in any genre to reach 5 million downloads. It opened the floodgates. Today, more than half of all top 10 podcasts belong to the true crime genre, but there is a clear distinction between those that simply report on cases and the kinds of podcasts that emulate “Serial.” These are five podcasts that advanced justice. 

#1. Serial 

In 1999, Korean-American high school student Hae Min Lee was found strangled to death in Leakin Park, Maryland. Her boyfriend, Adnan Masud Syed, who was just 17 years old, was convicted of her murder the following year. Syed attempted to appeal, but his pleas of innocence fell on deaf ears and, over the years, his case fell between the cracks, and the young man continued to serve his life sentence. 

Then in 2014, Rabia Chaudry — a friend and supporter of Adnan Syed — approached Sarah Koenig, a journalist, public radio personality, and former producer of the television and radio program “This American Life, for help in getting the case back in the public eye. They not only achieved that goal but completely shifted thinking about the legal system and the thin line between activism and entertainment. 

Across 12 episodes, Koenig explored the murder of Hae Min Lee and presented the evidence to an eager public. She did so without extolling her own opinion or even claiming that Syed was innocent. The podcast simply demanded another look at a case in which it seemed a major injustice had been done. 

The legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Christopher Dunn, described how “Serial” had unleashed a wide-ranging debate on the internet. “Most significantly, the discussion forum Reddit, which is enormously popular with young people, exploded with commentary from tens of thousands of people who debated and investigated every aspect of the case, many of which the podcast had not addressed.”     

The knock-on effect was that Adnan Syed’s case was brought before the court of Appeals with newly uncovered evidence, and in 2022 his conviction was vacated. He walked out of prison a free man. 

#2. The Teacher’s Pet 

Outside of the U.S., the Australian podcast, “The Teacher’s Pet,” was instrumental in solving a four-decade-old cold case. Mother of two, Lynn Dawson, disappeared from her home without a trace. Her family insisted that she would never have left her two daughters behind, but her husband, Chris Dawson, a teacher and former professional rugby player, claimed she had abandoned him and their children for a new life. 

Had Lynn disappeared today, it’s very likely that her case would have been approached differently as we now understand the dynamic of abusive relationships, but in the 1980s her disappearance was swept under the rug. 

Journalist Hedley Thomas first became aware of this case in 2001, but didn’t start digging into it until more than 15 years later. In 2018, he released his podcast, “The Teacher’s Pet,” which delved into Lynn’s disappearance and now confirmed murder. The podcast gained more than 60 million downloads and topped charts across the globe. 

Most importantly, in 2022, it led to the conviction of Chris Dawson for the murder of his wife. The podcast series was mentioned several times throughout the trial and its importance in gaining justice in this case is undisputed. 


#3. In The Dark

When Curtis Flowers was fired from his job at Tardy Furniture in 1996, he had no idea that being unemployed would soon be the least of his problems. Just days after his dismissal, the owner of the business as well as three other people were found shot to death in the store and Flowers became the main suspect. 

Over the next few years, he would be tried for the crime six times, with the last trial in 2010 ending in a conviction that was unsuccessful at appeal. As Flowers languished in prison, his supporters on the outside approached American Public Media, which had, in the first season of their podcast, “In The Dark,” taken an interesting approach to the kidnap and murder of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling. 

Rather than attempting to solve the crime, the podcast looked at the efficacy and fairness of the larger structures around the case. In Curtis Flowers’ case, it became very clear that this less-resourced man of color from Mississippi had become a victim of an unfair and, on occasion, blatantly racist system. 

In 2020, after the podcast had aired to critical acclaim and captured the curiosity and outrage of the American public, the conviction against Curtis Flowers was dismissed

#4. Your Own Backyard   

In 1996, 19-year-old college student Kristen Smart disappeared after leaving a party at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo. She was last seen with fellow student Paul Flores, who many other students would later describe as “creepy” and female students felt very uncomfortable around. Flores was a person of interest in the original investigation but Kirsten’s case remained unsolved until 24 years later. 

Singer-songwriter Chris Lambert was probably the most unlikely person to start an investigative podcast into this missing persons case, but when “Your Own Backyard” hit the podcast apps, audiences were rapt — and justice for Kristen Smart was soon being demanded. 

In 2022, Flores was brought to trial and found guilty of the abduction and murder of Kristen Smart. The podcast was regularly referenced throughout the trial and its impact on the eventual outcome is undeniable. 

#5. Up and Vanished

In 2005, teacher and former beauty queen, Tara Grinstead, disappeared from her home in Ocilla, Georgia. For 12 years, there was no trace of the young woman. Then, in 2017, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation held a press conference to announce the arrest of a suspect in Grinstead’s disappearance and presumed murder. During the announcement, the press were thanked for their major contribution and although names were not mentioned, everyone knew that the Bureau spokesperson was referring to the “Up and Vanished” podcast. 

“Up and Vanished” was created by filmmaker Payne Lindsay, who spent eight months scouring records and trying to crack the hard exterior of small-town Ocilla. His hard work resulted in 150 million downloads and the tips started to pour in. One of these tips led to the arrest of Ryan Duke. 

Although Duke was acquitted of Grinstead’s murder in 2022, he was found guilty of helping to dispose of her body. The legal action continues against others implicated in this crime. For Grinstead’s loved ones, the podcast has given them more closure than they could have ever hoped for. At least they now know what happened to Tara. 

The Power of Podcasting

Podcasting has the power to make real-world changes. Audio reporting draws listeners in, often in a way the written word fails to do, especially with so many pulls on our attention. When investigative journalists and even ordinary citizens set out with a specific intention in mind, it’s far easier for listeners to get behind them, spread the word, and increase exposure. 

These five podcasts are some of the best examples of how the true crime genre, when approached ethically and with the right motives, can demolish the line between entertainment value and advocacy, allowing for a new era of justice.

Nicole Engelbrecht

Opinion Contributor, Strixus

Nicole is a freelance writer, podcaster and host of the "True Crime South Africa" and "I Lived Through This" podcasts, and soon-to-be published nonfiction author. view profile


Related Posts