What happened to Phoebe Handsjuk?
What happened to Phoebe Handsjuk, Trudie Adams, Lyn Dawson and baby Tegan? There has been a resurgence in the popularity of mainstream media in Australia asking questions like these for under the guise of solving cold cases, packaged as true crime investigations in recent times. But do these podcasts and true crime television series help or hinder these investigations? And do they potentially jeopardise a fair trial?
Australians seem to have an unending appetite for true crime stories, perhaps because it’s an opportunity for lounge room role-playing as detective solving a mystery. However, true crime differs from crime fiction because real people’s lives are involved. Families, victims, witnesses and accused alike are not always well served by amateur investigations even if the intent is well meaning.
Typically podcasts and true crime television investigations are led by journalists, some with experience as court reporters but few with formal legal or police training. Their capacity to tell a good story is amplified by their skilful use of images, sound recordings and previously unreported information, as well as an ability to appeal to the emotion of audiences. However, their understanding of and deference to the law, what is admissible evidence, the right to a fair trial and the concept of innocence until proven guilty is less well formed.
As a result of some true crime reporting via podcast and television series, police have reopened cases, such as that of Lyn Dawson; and some accused have been tentatively granted retrial, as was seen in the ground-breaking US podcast Serial. In many cases this is because the public response places significant pressure on police, public prosecutors and politicians to act, even if the evidence exposed through podcasts and television programs may be circumstantial at best.
The public appetite for a thrilling story should not be confused with a professional investigation by police, thorough examination by coroners and fair trial in Court. However, there are occasions when media examination of a crime does prove beneficial in ensuring that all aspects of an investigation are brought to the attention of the Courts – for example, the reopening of Adnan Syed’s case as a result of Serial, or the retrial of Brendan Dassey and Steven Avery as a result of the popular Netflix show Making a Murderer.
These podcasts and television programs contribute to a greater public understanding of the law, and in some cases lead to a more just outcome; however the practice of law must be conducted within the institutions that society has agreed and not in the court of popular opinion. We can remain enthralled by true crime stories, but we mustn’t lose sight that these are not much more than story-telling, and victims, families, accused and witnesses have the right to proper judicial processes.