The Damaging Side Effect Of Our True Crime Obsession

by Jordan Lauf

"I'm still leaning, even though there are a few things that don't fit," private investigator Dan Clark begins in a taped conversation featured in Netflix's The Innocent Man. "I'm still leaning Floyd Degraw." He's talking about a man he believes could have committed the 1984 murder of Denice Haraway — a case in which two men, Tommy Ward and Karl Fontenot, were long ago convicted. (Degraw could not be reached for comment, but he was never charged in the case and maintains in the show that he had nothing to do with Haraway's murder). Clark, and many of the show's subjects, spend much of the six-episode series searching for evidence they hope will exonerate Ward and Fontenot, who have since claimed their confessions were coerced and reasserted their innocence, even as they've remained in prison for over 30 years. (The Ada Police Department has previously denied those allegations, and did not return Bustle's request for comment).

Part of that involves tossing around the names of others they think could be alternative suspects — even if it means doing so with little to no evidence to back it up. It's a practice that, though often employed in true crime, usually operates unchecked. From Making a Murderer to the fervent message boards of Reddit, documentarians, authors, investigators, and amateur sleuths have made every theory, hunch, and alleged suspect fodder for public discussion — often with little regard to how it will affect the very people being debated.

Of course, hypothesizing about potential suspects is an essential part of the investigative process, especially when, as in The Innocent Man, one is trying to make the case for a wrongful conviction. But there is something that feels reckless, even downright unethical, about naming unofficial suspects so publicly — especially when all that ties them to the crime is speculation.

Freelance Journalist A.C. Shilton— Netflix

In The Innocent Man, Floyd Degraw is just one of three men Clark and investigative journalist A.C. Shilton posit as potential suspects: two Ada residents, Jim Bob Howard and Billy Charley, are also mentioned.(Neither Howard nor Charley could be reached for comment, but both have denied involvement). When Shilton enlists longtime Ada resident Johnny Daniels to help track down these men, they each assert they played no part in Haraway's death. Degraw, who is in prison for unrelated charges, seems willing to talk, but Charley and Howard voice their reluctance to be associated with the case, much less filmed for a Netflix documentary series.

Moreover, the biggest connections between these men and Haraway is coincidental at best. Shilton and Clark believe Charley and Howard resemble the men in composite sketches drawn from witness accounts, and Charley owned a light gray truck — the same kind described by bystanders at the convenience store where Haraway was last seen — at the time she was killed. Degraw, Clark claims, reportedly got emotional while being questioned by police about Haraway, and has been convicted for unrelated violent offenses. None of them were tried for Haraway's murder or, at least as shown in the docuseries, considered seriously by law enforcement, and all three are almost entirely absent from the news. In other words, the only public affiliation they have with Haraway's case is via The Innocent Man.


Shilton herself admits that, in investigating these men on camera, she runs the risk of repeating the kind of bias that she believes put two innocent men in prison in the first place. "I want justice for Denice... I would be concerned if the outcome of this was someone else going to prison without physical evidence, that would also really concern me," she says in the show. "And I would wonder if I had done, you know, a disservice of my own."

Degraw, Charley, and Howard aren't model citizens, to be sure. Records for the West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation confirm that not long after Haraway's death, Degraw was convicted for the murder of another woman, and according to Oklahoma court records, both Howard and Charley have been charged with a number of offenses, including public intoxication and assault and battery with a deadly weapon, respectively. But does that absolve them of their right to privacy? Does it make it OK to name them as murder suspects on a series surely watched by thousands, if not millions, of people on the basis of little more than a hunch? Is it OK to, three decades after the fact, suddenly thrust them into the spotlight, when they quite actively avoided being in the show at all?

These are questions that have continuously festered since Making A Murderer revitalized the true crime genre back in 2016, giving rise to a deluge of similarly minded, suspect-heavy docuseries. When the show returned with Part 2 in October, Steven Avery's defense attorney, Kathleen Zellner, floated some new names of potential suspects, including Teresa Halbach's ex-boyfriend, Ryan Hillegas, as well as Brendan Dassey's brother and stepfather, Bobby Dassey and Scott Tadych, in Halbach's 2005 murder.

Hillegas, Tadych, and Bobby Dassey have all maintained their innocence in connection to Halbach's death and have never been charged in the case, but Zellner's accusations, both on-screen and off, have left a lingering impact. A quick Google search of Hillegas reveals countless articles theorizing about his alleged involvement and entire Reddit threads dedicated to investigating any potential motives for murder. Meanwhile Tadych, according to a tweet shared by Zellner, reportedly blamed her on Facebook for an influx of "nasty emails and messages" he had received and accused her of "ruining" he and Bobby's lives.


Perhaps the prime example of this ethical quandary, though, is James Renner, a former reporter who wrote an entire book about his personal mission to solve the disappearance of Maura Murray, a Massachusetts student who mysteriously vanished after crashing her car one night in 2004.

According to the New Yorker, Renner began an investigative blog after reading about the case online, and later turned to the sleuthing community for help in finding leads. After that, the New Yorker continues, he "posted every rumor sent his way, no matter how scurrilous or unhelpful" — including sharing a theory that Maura's father, Fred Murray, acted suspiciously in regard to his daughter's disappearance. "Until Fred Murray, I had never heard of a parent of a missing person who turned down the chance for national exposure," he wrote in his book, 2016's True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray. (Fred Murray couldn't be reached for comment).

"He wants me to be a subplot, 'cause I didn't talk to him," Fred said of Renner in a 2014 interview with Boston Magazine. "I can take temporary hits. That's losing battles. But there'a a war.” Helena Murray, a spokesperson for the family, was more explicit regarding the effect that Renner's accusations have had on Fred. "It's terribly, terribly sad to see what they do to [Fred] online," she added. Boston Magazine further notes that Helena even took down the message board on her site, mauramurraymissing.com, after posts became too vicious.


So why do documentarians, authors, and online sleuths continue to propagate unfounded accusations on public platforms? Partially, it seems, because it creates good entertainment. Shilton and Daniels' attempts to meet face-to-face with Charley and Howard made for some tense TV, as did the heated phone call between Avery and the Tadychs that aired amid an otherwise slow-moving second installment of Making a Murderer. And when it comes to Renner, well, every good book needs a villain.

As Kathryn Schulz wrote for the The New Yorker in 2016, "We still have not thought seriously about what it means when a private investigative project — bound by no rules of procedure, answerable to nothing but ratings, shaped only by the ethics and aptitude of its makers — comes to serve as our court of last resort." She's speaking specifically about Making a Murderer, but it could just as well be applied to The Innocent Man, Renner's book, and any others of that ilk. True crime shows are designed to appeal to the court of public opinion — a court not held to the same standards of our judicial system. As such, those named as unofficial suspects become collateral damage in a system that sometimes prioritizes shock value over legality, evidence (or lack thereof) be damned.

For a genre so invested in justice, very little time seems to be spent considering how many fingers are pointed, who they're pointed at, and at what cost.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized James Renners’ views on Fred Murray and interview process for True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray. It has been updated to accurately reflect them.