Serial was the hit podcast that truly kickstarted true crime as an entertainment genre – and altered the course of justice as a direct result.
It may have started the ball rolling, but Serial is far from the only show to take a true crime case and turn it into content for our listening and viewing pleasure – with dramatic results.
Here, we look at five shows which have changed the way we view the justice system – some even leading to criminal convictions or their overturning – at the same time as transfixing audiences around the world.
Serial: ‘One story told week by week’
From the podcast’s jaunty opening keyboard trill, to host Sarah Konig’s forensic dissection of the case, this show had audiences hooked from day one, becoming a word-of-mouth sensation back in 2014.
It kicked the true crime podcast genre into the mainstream and has spawned hundreds of similar casts in its wake. And of course, its work is not done yet.
Eight years after the podcast was first released, the man at the heart of the case, Adnan Syed, has been released from jail – his murder conviction quashed after 23 years in prison.
He has the podcast to thank for breathing new life into his defence and casting doubt on his conviction for the murder of his then-girlfriend Hae Min Lee after she was found strangled and buried in a Baltimore park in 1999.
He’s always protested his innocence and has been unsuccessfully appealing for his conviction for years, but now various pieces of evidence – including a handwritten letter from witness Asia McClain corroborating Syed’s account that he was in the library at the time of the killing, flawed mobile phone data and two potential other suspects who were not disclosed to his defence attorneys at the time of the trial – mean his case is being looked at again.
While he has not yet been declared innocent, he has been released from prison and is currently under house arrest with a tracker fitted onto his ankle.
Prosecutors now have 30 days to decide whether to retry him. The family of Hae Min Lee are exploring options with regard to appealing.
Regardless of the outcome, Syed finds himself firmly in the media glare once again.
Of course, a new Serial podcast documents his release, and the ongoing case is ready for listeners keen to pick up where they left off back in 2014.
Teachers Pet: Australian podcast that secured a conviction
A 74-year-old former rugby league player was convicted of the murder of his wife – almost 40 years after her death – thanks to a true crime podcast that reawakened interest in the cold case.
The Teacher’s Pet – a podcast made by journalists from The Australian newspaper – set out a circumstantial case that Chris Dawson had murdered his wife Lynette Dawson, also the mother of his two children.
Lynette went missing in Sydney’s northern beaches in January 1982, but her body was never found.
He denied killing the 33-year-old and claimed she had left the home to get some time to herself. There had been no evidence of Mrs Dawson contacting family or friends since her disappearance.
A 2003 inquest found that Dawson started an affair with a 16-year-old student who moved in with him days before his wife went missing.
The hit 2018 podcast detailed a troubled marriage leading up to her disappearance and scrutinised the police response to it. It has been downloaded over 30 million times and has been listened to by at least 60 million people.
Media reports, citing police sources, suggested the investigation was reopened after the publicity generated by the podcast.
However, officers insisted the case was reopened due to “new witnesses coming forward”.
Four months after the podcast’s last episode, police charged Dawson – who had opted for trial by judge rather than trial by jury due to the publicity around the case – with murder.
In August 2022 he was found guilty.
The judge said a combination of small pieces of evidence, including inconsistencies in Dawson’s defence, was persuasive and he was satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Dawson caused her death. He will be sentenced in November.
The Jinx: Hot mic ends in murder conviction
New York multi-millionaire and property heir Robert Durst was convicted of murder in 2021, following the hit HBO documentary The Jinx.
The show focused on three crimes – the unsolved 1982 disappearance of his first wife Kathleen McCormack, the 2000 murder of his long-time friend Susan Berman, and the 2001 killing of his neighbour Morris Black.
Although Durst was acquitted of murdering Black in 2001, a conversation caught on the mic during filming for the documentary appeared to show him confessing to all three murders. He apparently didn’t know he was still being recorded.
Durst, who had still been wearing a live microphone after his interview, was heard saying to himself in the bathroom: “What the hell did I do?… Killed them all, of course”.
Although these quotes were later revealed to have been manipulated for dramatic effect, he was arrested on the eve of the final episode.
He was subsequently convicted for shooting Ms Berman – who prosecutors claimed had given him a false alibi in relation to the disappearance of his wife – at point-blank range in 2000 at her Los Angeles home.
He was sentenced to life in prison.
Durst was charged with his wife’s disappearance shortly after being sentenced but died in jail in January of this year before his trial for that case could begin.
The 78-year-old was believed to be worth $100m (£73m) and was the grandson of Joseph Durst, who founded the Durst Organisation, one of Manhattan’s largest commercial property firms.
Lucky: Memoir adaptation that led to overturning of rape conviction
The man convicted of raping Lovely Bones author Alice Sebold had his conviction overturned after a producer who was making her 1999 memoir Lucky into a film began questioning why the first draft of the script differed so much from the book.
In 2021, Anthony Broadwater – who spent 16 years in prison – was cleared by a judge of raping Sebold when she was a student – an assault she wrote about in her 1999 award-winning memoir Lucky.
Tim Mucciante – who owns a production company called Red Badge Films – had signed on as executive producer of the adaptation but became sceptical of Broadwater’s guilt.
After conducting his own investigations, he eventually dropped out of the project and hired a private investigator.
Sebold’s memoir details her rape as a first-year student at Syracuse in May 1981, after which she spotted a black man on the street months later who she was sure was her attacker.
She then went to the police, who suggested the man she had seen was Mr Broadwater, who was subsequently arrested.
Sebold failed to identify him in a police line-up, but he was nevertheless convicted of the rape in 1982 – with forensic evidence used at the time in the case later described by his lawyer as “junk science”.
Broadwater was released from jail in 1999 but said the false conviction had blighted his life.
Sebold later apologised to him, saying: “I am grateful that Mr Broadwater has finally been vindicated, but the fact remains that 40 years ago, he became another young Black man brutalised by our flawed legal system. I will forever be sorry for what was done to him.”
The film based on Sebold’s book memoir was subsequently cancelled.
Publisher Simon & Schuster and its imprint Scribner also ceased distribution of Lucky in all formats but said they were “working with the author to consider how it might be revised”.
Sebold’s 2002 novel, The Lovely Bones about the rape and murder of a teenage girl seeking revenge on her killer, was turned into hit 2009 film starring Saoirse Ronan.
Don’t F*** With Cats: Gruesome Netflix documentary that puts itself on trial
A horrific video of a man torturing and killing two kittens led internet users around the globe to leap into action to track him down.
The three-part Netflix 2019 documentary Don’t F*** With Cats: The History Of An Internet Serial Killer told that story – making the monster at its heart – Luka Magnotta – famous.
Not content with killing animals, he went on to murder Chinese international student Jun Lin. He also posted a video of this killing on the internet.
The show gripped viewers from its release, but also opened up conversations about the streaming giant giving a platform to a man who had shared the video of his awful acts online in order to gain notoriety. It was something he achieved in bucketloads thanks to the documentary.
The show’s creators were well aware of this dilemma and addressed it in interviews.
Director Mark Lewis later told a BAFTA audience: “We arrived at what we thought was a comfortable position looking at the complicity with everyone who reads a crime story in the newspaper and who reads a crime novel.
“Crime and murder is something that we’re all fascinated in, and in a sense, it was part of the story that we’re all – whether filmmakers or viewers – sort of complicit in this fascination with true crime and murder.”
While viewers weren’t actually shown the graphic video at the heart of the documentary, reactions to the footage gave a good idea of its traumatising content, with one senior police officer contributor reduced to tears in the programme.
Critics of the show – possibly the most high-profile, and upsetting film about cats ever made – said it was a sensationalist story, which only heightened Magnotta’s fame. It’s an accusation that can’t be denied.
However, as documentation of the power of the public to investigate a crime through frame-by-frame scrutiny of the video, and indefatigable detective work into items seen in the perpetrator’s home, the film comes some way to redeem itself.
The documentary also features the family of the student he went on to murder, making the escalation of his crimes clear.
Magnotta was convicted of the murder of Jun Lin in December 2014 and sentenced to life with no eligibility for parole for 25 years.