My shows about murder are what go in between the commercials to sell trash bags and tampons…cynical but true, so think about that when you are watching true crime.
For the past decade, I’ve spent my days knee deep in the stories of people who have died violently. I have to imagine what went on for them so I can tell their stories properly. Some have been beaten to death. Some have been shot. Some have been dismembered. My goal is to tell an accurate, truthful story that allows victim’s loved ones to feel witnessed and to ensure there is documentation that reminds people why murderers are in jail.
My first true crime documentary was with the family of Michael Peterson, a man accused of murdering his wife on a staircase in Raleigh Durham, North Carolina. It was for the series, American Justice, hosted by Bill Kurtis on A&E. Once I was commissioned to produce the show, I wrote to Mr. Peterson in jail. We wrote back and forth a few times before he told me he knew the series was prosecution-based and I would have to convince his girlfriend of my merits as someone sympathetic to his case.
Strangely enough, Mr. Peterson’s girlfriend turned out to be my father-in-law’s ex-girlfriend from 1960s Greenwich Village. The coincidence was spooky and enough to get me access to the entire Peterson family at the time. I filmed in California where his kids lived and then flew across the country in the middle of the night to film his lawyer in Raleigh-Durham, Mr. Peterson in prison and then the relatives of his adopted daughters.
When the show was finally put together, Bill Kurtis had a good swipe at the end about some of the more far-fetched theories surrounding Peterson’s case. It was a little more heavy-handed than I would have done, but that was down to our series producer, not myself.
You would think the story should end there, but it didn’t.
A few years later, I was teaching at Columbia College Chicago. As I was taking roll call, I found myself in the same room with Michael Peterson’s adopted daughter, who I’d interviewed several years before and who was now my student. We were both shocked and had to evolve our relationship so it could be safe for both of us. We continue to be friends to this day.
Karma is an interesting reminder that what goes around might very well come around again.
From years of experience in this field, I have empathy for perpetrators and their families, but if you murder, you have to be removed from society. I no longer feel that poverty or mental illness can be a mitigating circumstance for murder. It may provide an explanation, but there is always an alternative to taking someone’s life. The permanence of death is excruciating for those left behind.
On the other hand, in very few cases do you find a murderer is well-provided for and well-adjusted. Some have been raised witnessing and being subjected to unspeakable things that have traumatized them. Some have been put in compromised positions where it’s unclear what their options to murder might have been. I get that.
Our prisons are lined with people who have mental illness and need support. They are over-crowded by impoverished people who couldn’t defend themselves properly, many being wrongly accused. The fact that some towns sustain themselves through prisons, that prisons are monetized, is a travesty. We should all keep in mind that we’re merely steps away from committing a crime. Our grass is only greener, I’ve found, through luck and definitely not by design.