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DNA or It Didn’t Happen

The first-ever CrimeCon, featuring Nancy Grace, the Wisconsin Innocence Project, and more than a few arguments about ‘Making a Murderer,’ was billed as a “true-crime theme park” for amateur sleuths. But the conference raised as many questions — about true crime, entertainment, and exploitation — as it answered.

By Molly Fitzpatrick

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Nancy Grace stood in the Indianapolis JW Marriott, in front of an audience of hundreds of true-crime fans. It is perhaps no surprise that the longtime Court TV and HLN host can work a podium; her speech would have been equally at home above a cable-news chyron or at a tent revival. At times, Grace raised her hands like a healer and borrowed the cadence and charisma of a preacher. The mellifluous Georgia accent, it should be said, was all her own.

Grace’s keynote address at CrimeCon, "Crime Victim to Crime Fighter," wove strands of tragedy, self-deprecation, smoldering rage, and tear-welling gratitude into the story of her life: the murder of Grace’s fiancé when she was in college, 9/11, the "horrible" white pantyhose she wore to court early in her career as a prosecutor, and the "big fat rattlesnake" her mother narrowly saved her from when she was a child. Then came time for the Q&A, which Grace introduced by preempting a few common questions. "I’ll start off by saying O.J. did it," she announced. "Tot Mom did it." (Tot Mom is Grace’s preferred nickname, and hashtag, for Casey Anthony.) "Jodi Arias did it. And Steven Avery — I don’t care what that high-class lawyer who wrote that 1,200-page brief says, I don’t care what Netflix says — Steven Avery did it." The ballroom, as packed as I saw it all weekend, enthusiastically applauded their agreement.

From there, Grace took questions from the audience, responding as part oracle and part insult comic. JonBenét Ramsey’s real killer? "It’s not Burke [Ramsey]. It’s not the father … " Scott Peterson? "I’ll tell you this: He did it," she answered. "And he’s having a glass of pruno right now," she said mischievously, referencing home-made prison wine. Next was Amanda Knox, the American woman who spent nearly four years in prison in Italy on a murder conviction before she was released in 2011 and acquitted in 2015. Grace’s on-the-spot verdict: "Totally, completely guilty." No cheers or laughter this time. Grace quickly clarified that, while she doesn’t think Knox "did the stabbing" of her roommate Meredith Kercher, she was there, and she lied about it. "I mean, is that such a stretch of the imagination?" Grace asked.

A man sitting a few rows ahead of me in the dark shouted, "Yes!"

Conventiongoers outside the entrance to CrimeCon (Molly Fitzpatrick)
Conventiongoers outside the entrance to CrimeCon (Molly Fitzpatrick)

While contrary opinions were very common at CrimeCon, heckling was not, and so after Grace left the stage, I went to find her antagonist. I was surprised to discover that he was none other than Jon Ronson, the author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed and The Psychopath Test. Ronson had spoken at CrimeCon about the latter book that morning.

"Look, I’m biased because I’m friends with Amanda Knox, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time with her," Ronson told me. (They do occasionally tweet at each other.) "But there’s zero DNA. There was nothing. I thought it was incredibly irresponsible for [Grace] just to tell a room full of a thousand people that a completely exonerated person is guilty." In Britain, the Cardiff native explained, the defamation laws would never allow that. "But in America, people do tend to just announce with no evidence who is and who isn’t a murderer quite willy-nilly."

Welcome to the inaugural CrimeCon, a self-professed "true-crime theme park" for forensics nerds, armchair detectives, Criminal Minds fans, and podcast enthusiasts. From June 9 to 11, about 1,500 attendees descended on downtown Indianapolis from Arkansas, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Canada, the U.K., Australia, and Taipei to spend a weekend talking about homicide, and who may or may not have committed it. They came for celebrity meet-and-greets and book signings with the likes of true-crime historian Harold Schechter and deputy sheriff turned Homicide Hunter: Lt. Joe Kenda actor Carl Marino. They came to sit in on live podcast recordings and a panel with the Innocence Project. They came to hear legendary former attorney F. Lee Bailey, now 84 — who had defended O.J. Simpson, Patty Hearst, and "Boston Strangler" Albert DeSalvo — decry the influence of the media on high-profile trials. They came for a murder-mystery dinner and a "29 Minutes to Live" escape room.

CrimeCon is a project of the digital media company Red Seat Ventures, founded by former executives of Glenn Beck’s TheBlaze; RSV counts Blumhouse Productions, sports radio host Colin Cowherd, and Grace herself among its clients. A true-crime fan, convention producer Kevin Balfe was shocked to discover that no such gathering already existed. He likened his vision — a weekend at a hotel, plus "fan-facing entertainment and education programming" — to South by Southwest, and said the cost of admission, from $199 for an early-bird standard badge to $699 for a Gold VIP badge, was intended to frame CrimeCon as a "getaway trip" with a "luxury feel." "We really tried to focus on education, experience, and making sure this is an environment where it’s a responsible, respectful audience," Balfe told me. "Are people gonna show up in costumes dressed as serial killers? I don’t want that. That’s not what we’re trying to attract or be."

The audience — overwhelmingly white women, and largely appearing to be between the ages of 25 and 50 — was, for the most part, as respectful and enthusiastic as Balfe had hoped. (I didn’t spot a single serial-killer costume at CrimeCon, though there was one teenage boy in a Charles Manson tee. "The girls are attracted to his shirt," his mother said.) But there were nevertheless moments of cognitive dissonance, when the festive atmosphere collided with its grim subject: a selfie session with a dummy standing in for a gunshot victim, a Ted Bundy trivia question displayed on a big screen and scored by a catchy Phillip Phillips tune, or the Nancy Grace seminar, which at times seemed to fly in the face of both conclusive evidence and legal findings, as well as basic civility. (Not to mention the cost for that "luxury feel.")

True crime has expanded rapidly over the last few years, as high-profile projects and social media attention have brought new audiences and new respect to a long-derided genre. A convention of like-minded fans was the next logical step for a booming industry — there are fan conventions for comics, anime, horror movies, and professional wrestling — but also, at times, a physical manifestation of the genre’s contradictions. The line between journalism and entertainment in true crime has never been clear; there are those who believe it exploits, and others who find that it empowers. The convention in Indianapolis presented some newer questions: Where is the line between curiosity and plain invasiveness, and how does an "interactive experience" figure into the equation? CrimeCon was a fascinating picture of a genre in transition, and an apt case study for the larger questions facing that genre. But like many of the participants in the various true-crime panels hosted over the weekend, no one I talked to could agree on the answers.

Grace, with typical cheek, told me that the true-crime genre started with the Bible: "Since Cain and Abel, for Pete’s sake, the first murder." More recently, from the 1920s through the 1960s, American true crime — a nonfiction genre of pop culture fixated on real crimes, usually homicides, and the real investigations that follow them — flourished in magazines, until the medium was supplanted by television and paperback books. Titles like True Detective (founded in 1924) are perhaps best remembered for lurid illustrations of helpless, voluptuous women, under cover lines like "I BEGGED THEM TO KILL ME" and "SIX BULLETS FOR THE RUNAWAY REDHEAD."

Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, which depicted the quadruple murder of the Clutter family in a small, rural Kansas town and the flight, arrest, and eventual execution of their killers, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, was a turning point for the genre. First published by The New Yorker in four installments in 1965, the nonfiction novel allowed true crime to ascend from the realm of pulp to capital-L literature. Books about serial killers and mass murder thrived through the ’70s and ’80s: The Manson Family chronicle Helter Skelter is still the best-selling true-crime book of all time. It was the arrival of Unsolved Mysteries in 1987 that brought true crime to reality television, and along with other shows of the era — America’s Most Wanted, Cops, Forensic Filestransformed the genre into the distinctly tough-on-crime, pro-law-enforcement, guilty-pleasure vehicle that we recognize today. The 1994–95 O.J. Simpson trial, which was broadcast gavel to gavel on several major networks, has been credited with launching the 24-hour cable news environment that now propels true-crime cases to national prominence.

Today, true crime is "booming," said David Schmid, a professor of English at the University at Buffalo and the author of Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture. The formats are changing; the tabloid stigma, if not the ethical tension, is dwindling. Serial, a spinoff of This American Life, achieved iTunes-record-shattering success with its 2014 first season, which investigated the 1999 murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee and revisited the conviction of her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed; it was criticized in some circles for its simplistic treatment of race, but it won a Peabody Award. (Syed is in the appeals process for a new trial.) Netflix’s 2015 10-episode series Making a Murderer questioned whether Steven Avery — who was exonerated after serving 18 years in prison on a sexual assault conviction, then found guilty of the unrelated murder of Teresa Halbach, which he denies committing — could have been framed by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department; some felt that it was troublingly one-sided, but it won four Emmys. The same year, a hot mic on the set of HBO’s The Jinx captured accused murderer and real estate heir Robert Durst saying that he "killed them all, of course." The show won two Emmys and a Peabody. 2016 brought both the Oscar-winning O.J.: Made in America from ESPN and the Emmy-winning American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson from FX. S-Town, the new podcast from the creators of Serial, alchemized a murder mystery into a Southern Gothic novel and garnered an unprecedented 40 million downloads in the first month of its release.

Josh Mankiewicz, who’s in his 22nd year as a correspondent for Dateline, told me, "I don’t think there’s any question that true crime is having its moment now." Mankiewicz attributed that popularity to external circumstances: "We’ve all reached a point where we’re sort of unhappy with some part of the world that’s not working the way it’s supposed to. On Dateline, the world works the way people wish it did," said Mankiewicz, who gave a talk and participated in a meet-and-greet at CrimeCon. Ben Kissel, cohost of The Last Podcast on the Left, which applies off-color gallows humor not just to crime, but horror-adjacent topics like conspiracies, UFOs, and the occult, credited new mediums for the surge of attention. "With the internet, people finally realize they’re not alone in loving all this really weird subject matter that alienated them from their family and friends for so many years," Kissel said. For some fans at CrimeCon, the chance to meet the people behind 32 of their favorite true-crime podcasts — whose faces they might not know, but whose voices they could recognize within the first three syllables of "Henry Lee Lucas" — was the convention’s biggest draw.

America’s Most Wanted famously asked its viewers to call the toll-free number 1–800-CRIME-TV to share information about fugitives — which they did, in droves — but now the internet facilitates audience participation like never before. Aspiring crime-solvers can chase down leads and debate motives on forums like Websleuths, which hosts discussion threads about unsolved cases and missing persons, and subreddits like r/UnresolvedMysteries and the Reddit Bureau of Investigation. It has never been so easy to find new true-crime stories, or to connect with like-minded amateur detectives — be it on Twitter, Facebook, or now face to face at CrimeCon. Or as Kissel put it: "Wow, there’s actually millions of people who are into this darker stuff. That’s where all the [conventions] come from."

The Midwest Search Dogs were the biggest crowd-pleaser of the weekend. (Molly Fitzpatrick)
The Midwest Search Dogs were the biggest crowd-pleaser of the weekend. (Molly Fitzpatrick)

A typical day at CrimeCon included a mix of informative panel talks, interactive "crime-solving" lessons, and blockbuster presentations from well-established (which is to say, older-guard) true-crime celebrities. The biggest crowd-pleaser of the weekend, and an unmatched highlight for me, was the Midwest Search Dogs, an Indiana-based search-and-rescue team. This was CrimeCon at its most uncomplicated: cute dogs and behind-the-scenes information, with real-life implications at a safe distance. I watched a bloodhound named Garmin — who, we were told, could sniff out a drop of blood in an Olympic-sized pool — track a conventiongoer from across the room by the scent of a badge. (I’ve never seen adults raise their hands faster or more enthusiastically than when the search-dog handlers requested volunteers.) We learned that Garmin’s low-hanging, floppy ears disturb the ground when she puts her head down, stirring up all kinds of smells, to the aid of her nose’s already considerable powers. One of the canines we met works for cheese, another for a Frisbee. Lambeau, a lab, is a "ball dog." That’s his "paycheck," his handler explained, as Lambeau frolicked with his prize. When the demonstration ended, the dogs accepted ear scratches and belly rubs from the public in gratitude for their service. I petted all of them.

One of my favorite noncanine presentations was "Day in the Life: True Crime TV Producer." Bethany Jones, nicknamed "the inmate whisperer" by coworkers at CNN, shared photos of mail she’d received from the likes of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski — who wrote his full name, Theodore John Kaczynski, in the return address. She described the challenge of compassionately reaching out to bereaved families for interviews: "You wanna talk about the worst day of your life, and also, you’ve never met me?" Producer Adriana Padilla contributed a behind-the-scenes picture of a field-interview setup in a cramped space in the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building, which had her sitting next to the trash. ("I’ve also been put inside a closet during a hotel-room interview," Padilla told me later. "It’s a glamorous life on the road.") As a journalist who consumes a not-insignificant number of true-crime podcasts, I found myself most personally drawn to these types of expert panels — many of which could be described as "how the true-crime sausage gets made." They were frank and engrossing, but for the most part managed to keep a thoughtful tone; these were true-crime cases to discuss, but not to participate in.

The “Incriminating Selfie” stage at CrimeCon (Molly Fitzpatrick)
The "Incriminating Selfie" stage at CrimeCon (Molly Fitzpatrick)

But the interactive events were, without question, extremely popular, and if anyone had second thoughts about turning crime into something like an amusement park attraction, I did not witness those misgivings. Just past registration, one of the very first sights that greeted CrimeCon attendees was the "Incriminating Selfie" stage, which invited all comers to pose in a mock crime scene amid a pool of blood, a photograph in a shattered frame, and some conspicuous Oxygen branding. That’s where I found best friends LaQuinda Johnson and Kellen Hillpot, taking turns doing their best to contort into the shape of the scene’s chalk outline. They met working at a bank, where they listened to true-crime podcasts like Generation Why and Last Podcast on the Left together. "Like, all day," Johnson said. "And in the car," Hillpot added. She and Johnson bought early-bird passes to CrimeCon last July and persuaded their true-crime-loving mothers, Kriste LaPorte and Monica Johnson, to come too. For her part, LaPorte was most excited to see true-crime TV personalities Grace and Aphrodite Jones.

Two flights of escalators below, the well-attended "29 Minutes to Live" escape room challenged all those who managed to sign up in time to use their "keen intellect honed from years of true-crime obsession" to find a "suspected explosive device." (A man working the escape room, a production of The Escape Room Indianapolis, told me they weren’t allowed to say "bomb.") Brynn and Lisa, who’d come to CrimeCon all the way from San Diego, beat the game with nine minutes to spare. "There’s no coming down. We’re shaking," Lisa told me, still in the throes of adrenaline. Brynn had called her friend the moment she saw an ad for CrimeCon in her Facebook feed; they booked their tickets within about 10 minutes. "We did not waste time. We knew we had to go solve crimes," Brynn said. Lisa didn’t bother to ask the date — she just gave Brynn her card number. "And PIN," Lisa added. The two women enjoy CSI, Dateline, Forensic Files, and 48 Hours. "I did not get interested in true crime until DNA, and I’ll tell you why," Brynn said. "All of a sudden, when they showed everyone that should not be in prison, that’s when I said, ‘Holy crap.’ How did the investigation railroad them? Personally, I hate the police. I think they’re fucking liars.’"

Meanwhile, outside a courtroom set, multiple attendees waited in line to participate in "The Jury Experience," in which actors presented an abbreviated version of a real murder trial, The State of Wisconsin v. Eric Anthony Peterson. The audience was then divided into juries, which independently deliberated and arrived at a verdict. The next morning, in "Day in the Life: Innocence Project Attorneys," Wisconsin Innocence Project codirector Carrie Sperling revisited the facts of the same case. Peterson, an 18-year-old black man, was convicted of murdering 19-year-old shopkeeper Nassor Amin in 1985. Though the trial was marred by — among other things — shifting witness accounts and a recanted and allegedly coerced confession from Peterson, the defendant was found guilty by a judge and sentenced to life in prison. Several years later, the judge was suspended for making racist comments from the bench. In 2015, the Wisconsin Innocence Project won a DNA motion to test the supposed murder weapons, but the 30-year-old evidence produced only a partial profile — one that wasn’t specific enough to compare with Peterson’s own DNA profile.

Every jury that heard the case at CrimeCon — over three sessions of "The Jury Experience" — would have acquitted the defendant, which came as a surprise to the event’s moderator and judge, LawNewz editor-at-large Beth Karas. The jurors, for their part, were equally shocked by the outcome. A woman named Claire told me that when the audience in her session learned that the original verdict was guilty, "There was an audible gasp."

True crime has always trafficked in mysteries, but once, fans could count on those mysteries being solved. "When I first started writing, there was no way I could ever approach a story that didn’t have a final resolution and the killer wasn’t caught," said Aphrodite Jones, host of True Crime With Aphrodite Jones on Investigation Discovery, author of eight true-crime books, and presenter of "The Secrets Behind Scott Peterson" at CrimeCon. The viewer experience is completely different in the internet age, she says. "Social media wasn’t around. People didn’t have the access to connect the dots. Big difference."

Some of this has to do with the changes in programming. "The Investigation Discovery type of true crime — and I don’t mean that in a negative way at all — has been around a long time, and has a core group of fans who love those types of programming," CrimeCon producer Kevin Balfe said. "The new wave of programming — Serial, Making a Murderer, The Jinx, The Keepers, Mommy Dead and Dearest now — these sort of HBO, Netflix, NPR programs, are bringing in a different audience who is discovering true crime as a genre through a different lens."

These "new wave" stories share a certain shift in tone — conflicted, self-examining, with a more adversarial relationship to law enforcement — but there is a structural difference as well. "Serial and Making a Murderer and The Jinx have opened up this other space where questions can remain unanswered for a while," said Robert Kolker, the author of Lost Girls, an account of the hunt for the still-unidentified Long Island serial killer and the lives of five sex workers who became his victims. "You can have a did-they-or-didn’t-they-do-it narrative, or a how-will-they-ever-get-caught narrative."

And you can have a lot of amateur detectives popping up on social media to weigh in on the case. When I spoke to David Schmid, the English professor, he highlighted the "participatory" nature of the more recent open-ended crime narratives. "They are implicitly or explicitly asking their audiences to get involved, to pursue the implications," he said. As Aphrodite Jones put it, "I get constant emails about the Zodiac."

I met CrimeCon attendees Leslie Hankins and Beth Gordon as they braved the crowd at Podcast Row. Hankins and Gordon work together in local government in Georgia, and they’re drawn to the stories of missing people and to unsolved cases, like the Golden State Killer — or that of the human remains that were found in a suitcase down the road from their office last year. "We’re always trying to solve stuff," said Hankins, who’s "dabbled" in Websleuths. "It’s kind of our geeky thing," Gordon told me.

On Saturday morning, Websleuths owner Tricia Griffith hosted a live recording of her radio show with guest Sheryl McCollum, a crime scene investigator and director of the Cold Case Investigative Research Institute. McCollum encouraged listeners to reach out to her on social media with any — really, any — tips and leads on cold cases: "Civilians solve crime all the time." Griffith herself explained her own organization’s outlook on Sunday’s "Citizen Detectives 101" panel: "One hundred amateurs have 100 perspectives to look at evidence with. Investigators have as many perspectives as they have investigators."

Kolker devoted a chapter of Lost Girls to web commenters’ discussions of the murders. "The online sleuthing is both really, really helpful and also a rabbit hole that you can fall into," he told me before the conference. "It’s really both. It’s everything. Trying to characterize it is almost as hard as characterizing the internet, because it has it all." That includes genuine insights as well as conspiracy theories and wild accusations, like when internet detectives notoriously misidentified the Boston Marathon bombers in 2013. Rabia Chaudry is an attorney, a public advocate for family friend Adnan Syed, and the cohost of the Undisclosed podcast. (Chaudry did not participate in CrimeCon.) When I spoke to her on the phone, she recalled "frustrating" interactions with some eager Serial listeners turned sleuths. "They’d say, ‘I listened to Serial five times.’ Well, that doesn’t make you any more of an expert than anybody who’s listened to it one time, because there’s so much more that hasn’t been told in the story."

CrimeCon made some half-hearted attempts to address this tension. Though fans could purchase official CrimeCon T-shirts that read "Basically a Detective" and "DNA or It Didn’t Happen," a closing address from CrimeCon’s fan-favorite emcee, Jim Clemente, a retired FBI agent and now a writer-producer for Criminal Minds, reminded the audience that "the reality of what the professionals do is often very different from what you see on TV or in the movies."

Down in White River Ballroom E on Friday, dozens of onlookers crowded around a long runner rug as the lights flicked off. Previously invisible bloodstains, sprayed with the luminol-based reactive agent Bluestar, glowed pale blue in the dark. "Don’t worry," one of the professional crime scene investigators said with a smile. "We used butcher-shop blood."

“CSI: Indianapolis” was a panel on crime-scene procedure. (Molly Fitzpatrick)
"CSI: Indianapolis" was a panel on crime-scene procedure. (Molly Fitzpatrick)

This was "CSI: Indianapolis," a panel organized by the city’s Forensic Services Agency. On a raised platform cordoned off with bright yellow police tape, a "corpse" — a dummy with a skeletal face — sat slumped on a couch with an apparent gunshot wound to the chest. Don Toth, a local crime-scene specialist with an avuncular charm, walked the audience through the proper procedure in meticulous detail. "It’s not like TV where you can just go into anybody’s house," Toth said at one point, with the due diligence of a professional. "Even if it’s the decedent’s house — because ultimately, the decedent may have been killed by the husband or boyfriend who lives in the house." A woman seated near me whispered, "Probably."

In The Invention of Murder, her best-selling 2011 survey of Victorian England’s cultural infatuation with homicide, Judith Flanders wrote that "crime, especially murder, is very pleasant to think about in the abstract: it is like hearing blustery rain on the windowpane when sitting indoors. It reinforces a sense of safety, even of pleasure, to know that murder is possible, just not here."

Many CrimeCon attendees I spoke to said they felt drawn to the psychology of murder, the unseen motives that push apparently ordinary people to do unfathomably terrible things. "People love a mystery," said Jackie King. "You can never assume anything. You always have to be open-minded to other possibilities," Lisa from San Diego told me. "Why do people do what they do? What drove them to do it?" LaQuinda Johnson asked.

Greeting cards for sale at CrimeCon (Molly Fitzpatrick)
Greeting cards for sale at CrimeCon (Molly Fitzpatrick)

Others find true crime to be an escape valve. "The more I know, the less frightening it is," said Micki Voelkel, a professor who braved a 12-hour drive to CrimeCon from Fort Smith, Arkansas. Kolker suggested that, even when a mystery hasn’t been solved, "to read it in a self-contained book or to watch it on a self-contained program is to impose order on chaos." Still others enjoy the "taboo" thrill of occupying a killer’s mind-set, however briefly or superficially.

True crime’s fan base strongly skews female. That’s an easy deduction to make at CrimeCon, just by taking in the demographics of the line at the lone JW Marriott Starbucks, but a 2010 study confirmed that women enjoy the genre (of true-crime books, specifically) more than men do. "Women relate to this on a whole other level," said Aphrodite Jones. There is less information available about the racial demographics of true crime’s audience, but it seemed clear to me that the vast majority of CrimeCon attendees, at least, were white.

I quickly lost count of how many pairs of enthusiastic wives and good-sport husbands I met at CrimeCon. There were many. "I’m here to be an assistant and carry the bags," joked John Davies, who attended alongside his wife Cathy, a voracious true-crime podcast listener. I sat next to married couple Anna and Phil at the murder-mystery dinner and learned about the deal they’d made: She’d accompanied him to a blues club the night before, and now he was her date to CrimeCon. "There’s only one channel on the TV, and it’s ID," Phil said. "He’s here for support," a woman in line for "The Jury Experience" told me of her husband. "He thinks I’m trying to kill him."

"One of the things that I hypothesize is women are preparing for something bad to happen," Erin Lee Carr, the director of the new HBO true-crime documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest told me. (Carr did not participate in CrimeCon.) "We want to listen to these stories so that if somebody were to come up to us, we’d know what to do. It’s information in our back pockets."

Multiple people I interviewed — including Nancy Grace — mentioned that women are more frequently crime victims than men, and that’s technically true, albeit by a small margin. (In 2015, 1.03 percent of females and 0.94 percent of males [age 12 or older] in the United States were the victims of violent crime.) Murder is a different story. According to the FBI’s 2015 Uniform Crime Reporting Program, 78.8 percent of the homicide victims for whom supplemental data was available were men. Meanwhile, African Americans account for about 13 percent of the U.S. population, yet comprise roughly half of all homicide victims in America. In 2014, black women were the victims of homicide by men at more than twice the rate of white women. And yet — just as the phenomenon of "missing white woman syndrome" sees disproportionately little attention paid to endangered people of color in news coverage — true crime is overwhelmingly concerned with white victims. From what I saw, so was CrimeCon.

"The way true crime has completely ignored race is still a puzzle to me," said Jean Murley, the author of The Rise of True Crime: 20th-Century Murder and American Popular Culture and a professor of English at Queensborough Community College. She praised L.A. Times reporter Jill Leovy and her book Ghettoside, which confronts the epidemic of homicides of black men in South Los Angeles. Cathy Scott is an investigative journalist and the best-selling author of The Killing of Tupac Shakur and The Murder of Biggie Smalls; at CrimeCon, she spoke on the panel "Citizen Detectives 101" and moderated the Golden State Killer panel. "Most people don’t notice that the [true-crime] book genre is predominantly white, including the perpetrators, victims, and families," Scott told me.

Both Murley and Schmid pointed to recent projects like Serial, Making a Murderer, and The Keepers — a new Netflix docuseries about the unsolved murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik, who disappeared in 1969 — as representative of a "revolutionary phase," critically revisiting a cold (or closed) case and questioning whether justice was rightly served. "These more recent narratives start from a completely different place: The system does not work, it doesn’t represent people, it is fundamentally corrupt and ineffective," explained Schmid. It’s possible, he thinks, for true crime to become newly "ethical," encouraging engagement and activism around issues of criminal justice.

"When you look at how many young black men are incarcerated in the system, by sheer numbers, you know something wrong is happening here," said Carr. "If there is a way for filmmakers — and I hope to include myself in this — to investigate what happened, how people were robbed of their livelihood and their life by the criminal justice system, I think that is a sort of civic duty."

But those issues were not being discussed at CrimeCon, nor were questions about race or incarceration being asked. If activism, or even broader representation, is the goal for the new generation of true crime, then CrimeCon hasn’t caught up.

Outside a “murder mystery” dinner for VIP guests (Molly Fitzpatrick)
Outside a "murder mystery" dinner for VIP guests (Molly Fitzpatrick)

On Friday night, Ken Kratz was in attendance at the early seating of CrimeCon’s murder-mystery dinner, sponsored seemingly as an afterthought by the upcoming remake of Murder on the Orient Express. The Steven Avery prosecutor was enlisted by the hosts to reenact the night’s fictional death, as fancifully "recounted" by fellow diner and Investigation Discovery fixture Carl Marino. At Marino’s command, and to the delight of the audience, Kratz pirouetted, then danced an Irish jig. When Marino mentioned, in jest, that he seemed to remember the fake victim doing the worm, Kratz hesitated. A chant of "Do the worm!" broke out around the ballroom, and Kratz reluctantly obliged. "Do not put me on Twitter," he warned, as a video of the event was being streamed live on the CrimeCon Facebook page. Kratz dropped to his knees and flopped belly first on the carpet, flailing his arms and legs — more a fish out of water than a worm — to cheers, laughter, and applause. It was, frankly, bizarre to watch.

Kratz — who came off in Making a Murderer as at worst an agent of injustice and at best a smug creep — has been the subject of near-universal loathing on the internet. In addition to other allegations of sexual misconduct, it came to light in 2010 that Kratz had sexted a domestic violence victim while prosecuting her abuser; the then–Calumet County district attorney resigned under pressure from the governor and had his law license suspended for four months. Lately, he spends his time promoting his new book, Avery: The Case Against Steven Avery and What ‘Making a Murderer’ Gets Wrong, for which Nancy Grace wrote the foreword. But Kratz told me he was pleasantly "surprised" by his warm welcome at CrimeCon. "Everybody, even if they disagreed with us, have been incredibly gracious and open to hear the other side." Nevertheless, precautions were taken. In the middle of our interview, he was briefed by a CrimeCon staffer that his next talk would be "high security," with two undercover cops stationed in the front rows.

The CrimeCon attendees I spoke to who attended "The Steven Avery Experience" — Kratz’s three-hour rebuttal to Making a Murderer, given with co-lead investigator Tom Fassbender — were almost uniformly positive about the presentation. In line for the "Interrogation Experience" on Sunday, Matt Kelly — who’d previously believed Avery was innocent — told me, "I thought, ‘No way that guy was smart enough to pull that off.’" Natalie Hinton Jennings, waiting to get into Kratz’s book signing on Saturday, said "The Steven Avery Experience" was "worth the price of admission" on its own, a highlight of the weekend.

There was still a handful of dissenters: Julia Wolynes told me she felt Kratz and Fassbender spoke "carelessly," in absolutes. "They were kind of dissing the Innocence Project. … It was obvious they held a grudge." Her mother, Kathy Bucher, laughing, agreed: "And I think Avery’s guilty."

The presence of Grace, a client of Red Seat Ventures herself and invariably CrimeCon’s first-billed guest, was equally divisive, and even more pervasive. A photo booth at the back of the main ballroom allowed guests to take a "mugshot" as if they were the topic of a Grace cable-news segment. In line for mugshots were Jill Spencer and Shelton Stile, who flew to CrimeCon from Florida. Stile couldn’t wait to see Grace. "I have three women I admire the most," he said. "That’s Judge Judy, Nancy Grace, and Suze Orman."

The woman waiting in line right in front of them, Kerri Slivka, chimed in: "I like two of those three." The exception was Grace. "I think she’s obnoxious, rude, and a horrible victim advocate," Slivka explained.

Nancy Grace was invariably CrimeCon’s first-billed speaker. (Molly Fitzpatrick)
Nancy Grace was invariably CrimeCon’s first-billed speaker. (Molly Fitzpatrick)

With her multitude of fans at CrimeCon, Grace was unfailingly gracious and generous with her attention, quick with a hug and a selfie. But to many, the self-described "victims’ rights" advocate is notorious for sowing fear and anxiety, and for being wrong — for example, when she suggested that Whitney Houston’s accidental death could be the result of foul play. "Who let her slip, or pushed her, underneath that water?" Grace asked in a 2012 appearance on CNN. David Schmid did not attend CrimeCon, but told me he was troubled by the speaker lineup, which struck him as representing some of the "worst aspects" of modern true crime. That includes Kratz and particularly Grace, a "real bottom feeder, as far as the genre goes."

Balfe, the CrimeCon producer, acknowledged that the conference featured some controversial speakers, but for the organizers, inviting someone like Kratz to share his perspective was a "no-brainer." (Balfe told me he did not believe that Making a Murderer filmmakers Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos had been invited to CrimeCon but that his team had unsuccessfully reached out to Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, Avery’s defense attorneys seen on Making a Murderer, as well as Avery’s current lawyer, Kathleen Zellner.) He likened the dissenting factions of true crime to Republican politics. "A lot of Republicans hate each other. They don’t agree almost on anything. I tell people that there’s an analogy to true crime — it’s a big tent, but within it are so many different niches and verticals," he said.

"I’ve been asked so often why I am such a controversial figure, and I really don’t know," Grace told me. "I don’t see myself that way at all. I see myself as trying to tell and uncover the truth."

I asked Grace if, in retrospect, she ever regretted any of her coverage or comments. "One thing I wish was different is that I wish that everything I said would be accurately reported," she said. "That’s just a hazard of speaking what you believe to be the truth."

Emcee Jim Clemente touched on the coexistence of seemingly incompatible, oil-and-vinegar philosophies of true crime at the convention in his opening speech: "You’re going to hear many differing opinions, and we’d like to ask everyone to be respectful of the diversity of viewpoints. … We’re here to serve as a platform for all ideas relating to crime, and the more voices we hear and represent, the stronger we all are."

But some voices — several tiers higher up on the CrimeCon marquee, with the stage time to match — carried undeniably further than others. During a live episode of Crime Stories With Nancy Grace, featuring guests Ken Kratz, Tom Fassbender, and Up and Vanished podcaster Payne Lindsey, Grace shouted down Lindsey for suggesting the intellectual deficits of Steven Avery’s nephew, Brendan Dassey, may have compromised the validity of his confession. "Did you go to law school, Payne Lindsey?!" she yelled.

Lindsey conceded the point. In his defense, I don’t think anyone in the building was capable of shouting down Nancy Grace.

CrimeCon occupied the same floors of the JW Marriott as the annual meeting of the American Association of Medical Dosimetrists and "Jomarva Bell’s 80th Birthday Celebration." I wondered more than once what the dosimetrists and Jomarva’s family and friends thought of us. It’s hard for me to remember a time before I was interested in true crime: I’m a fan of the feminist comedy podcast My Favorite Murder and the unnerving yet empathetic books of Ann Rule. In general, I’m intrigued by stories of unsolved crimes, hidden motives, and anything that teaches me about how people do difficult and technical jobs — be they investigators, forensic anthropologists, producers, or search dogs. But to someone who does not share those interests, I can understand how a fan convention dedicated to crime might seem seedy, if not downright sinister.

Author Jean Murley did not attend CrimeCon, but she was aware of it. She had her reservations about what she perceived as a lack of sensitivity in its packaging. "I’m a little queasy, morally, with the idea of setting up crime scenes for entertainment. I just think that’s distasteful and gross. We’re talking about people who were murdered — this is real."

The line too often gets blurred between true crime and crime fiction, Murley said. "I think that people who do true crime need to remember that. And a lot of times they don’t. They seem to just want to sell books, sell the story, sell the show, whatever. As much as I love the genre, I don’t love all of it."

Everyone, it seems, has their own litmus test that determines when true crime becomes exploitation, in either what they consume or what they create. "If the host is promising you thrills, spills, and chills, then to me, personally, it’s a little creepy," said Robert Kolker. "We don’t joke about the victims, as much as humanly possible," Last Podcast on the Left cohost Ben Kissel said. "We try to joke about the characters themselves that have committed the murders, because they’re all morons and bumblebutts." Reporter Scott Reeder’s podcast Suspect Convictions, produced in collaboration with WVIK, the Quad Cities NPR affiliate, revisits the 1990 death of 9-year-old Jennifer Lewis, for which Stanley Liggins has twice been convicted of murder. Both of those convictions were vacated, and a third trial is upcoming. "We want to make sure we are treating crime with the gravity it deserves," Reeder said of his approach. "I think overwhelmingly my audience does, but every once in a while, you’ll get somebody posting something like, ‘Well, this isn’t all that entertaining.’ I would hope it’s not entertaining. It’s a story about the murder of a child."

The week before CrimeCon, Reeder told me that he had no interest in attending the convention’s escape room or murder-mystery dinner. "Some of the stuff I kind of roll my eyes at. … That bothers me. [True crime] is a fine genre. But you can’t treat it as entertainment, because it’s not entertainment. It’s somebody’s tragedy that you’re looking at. You’ve got to treat that respectfully and tell it honestly."

For the families of murder victims, the gray areas are less gray. Many, like the family of Hae Min Lee, and those of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman (the two victims at the heart of the O.J. trial), have condemned projects about their loved ones. Tanya Brown, sister of Nicole, told me the production team behind American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson did not contact her family. "I just found that to be really, really disrespectful," she told me.

Brown thinks it’s possible for true crime to relate the stories of crime victims with sensitivity, but that their tellings are far too often "sensationalized" and devoid of empathy. "Whoever’s lying underneath that tarp is somebody’s kid. Always remember that there is a family behind the person that you’re talking about, whether that’s Nicole, whether that’s Ron, whether that’s O.J.," she told me. "But people don’t look at it like that. They just go, ‘This is interesting. This is fascinating.’ … Put yourself in the person’s shoes. What would you like? How would you feel? Because you know what? It could happen to you. God forbid, but it could happen to you."

As CrimeCon emcee, Clemente encouraged his audience to keep victims and their families in their hearts and minds — we weren’t there to "celebrate crime," but to learn from it — although not quite as many times as he encouraged us to post the hashtag #CrimeCon on social media. "Ultimately," he said in his closing speech, "[the victims are] what this conference is all about."

Victims were much more vividly and heartrendingly represented in the weekend’s most devastating panel. A victim of the Golden State Killer and two family members of women he killed shared their stories on Saturday morning.

The Golden State Killer — also known as the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker — is believed to have committed 12 homicides, 45 sexual assaults, and more than 120 burglaries between 1976 and 1986 throughout California. Jane Carson-Sandler, his fifth victim, was raped in 1976. At the panel on Saturday, Carson-Sandler spoke of feeling controlled by her attacker for years before finding strength in her faith and in working with women who’ve suffered sexual assault and incest. "I went from being a victim to a survivor to a thriver," she said. Now, she wants closure — for her attacker to be identified and captured.

Debbi Domingo, also on the panel, was 15 when she lost her mother to the Golden State Killer. She offered a heartbreaking description of their last conversation, an argument over the phone. Fellow speaker Michelle Cruz, whose 18-year-old sister Janelle was raped and slain by the Golden State Killer in 1986, explained that the goal for herself and her "sister survivors" is exposure, drawing as much attention as possible to the investigation.

After the panel, Carson-Sandler told me that CrimeCon was an "amazing" experience. Throughout the weekend, she, Domingo, and Cruz could be found at a booth at the rear of the main ballroom, offering free bookmarks and pens printed with the words "WHO IS THE GOLDEN STATE KILLER?" and contact information for the FBI.

Carson-Sandler, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps, wrote the book Frozen in Fear about her assault, ensuing trauma, and recovery. She’s spoken about her experiences to incarcerated rapists and worked with women who’ve survived rape and incest. "That’s why I am not sorry that I was raped, because I have a purpose," she said. "My passion is to reach out to other women and let them know that they don’t have to relive their past."

She told me that one young woman who’d learned about the Golden State Killer from the Australian podcast Casefile had approached their booth, and upon realizing who Jane was, burst into tears. "She was so overwhelmed, she left. … She felt my pain."

"I really didn’t have any idea how many people cared about this case, cared about getting involved and wanting to help solve this," Carson-Sandler said of CrimeCon. "It’s been healing for all of us. We’re not alone in this."

A conventiongoer wearing police tape leggings (Molly Fitzpatrick)
A conventiongoer wearing police tape leggings (Molly Fitzpatrick)

The organizers of CrimeCon did not share any financial information, but the conference is already planned for 2018 in Nashville, and tickets are selling well. Which is to say: The inaugural CrimeCon, by all accounts, was a hit. I didn’t speak to anyone in Indianapolis who wasn’t positive about their experience, including attendees, guests, and speakers. "They’ve all been really excited," Payne Lindsey said of the Up and Vanished fans he met at CrimeCon. "Everybody’s been really cool." Kolker was pleasantly surprised that the Long Island serial killer panel drew a large crowd to the convention’s largest ballroom. "I thought we’d be off in some side room with 40 people," he said. Even Jon Ronson called the conference "a nice mix of Nancy Grace types and Innocence Project types."

"I was in the FBI for 22 years, and I can honestly say I have never had a weekend like this weekend," Clemente told the crowd as he closed out the convention. "The amazing thing is that none of us had the same weekend. Everybody took their own track, and through the hours we decided where we found our individual paths." What CrimeCon made abundantly clear is that true crime represents vastly different things to different people, each seeking what they believe to be the truth — and that true crime itself is a genre in flux, bifurcating into denominations that have increasingly little in common. Except, of course, a fundamental, almost primal fascination with crime.

At a particularly rousing moment in her keynote speech, Grace recounted a scene from her career as a prosecutor, when she felt that God had given her the strength to deliver a closing argument that admonished a jury to seize its chance to "do the right thing" by returning a guilty verdict. Grace — who once aspired to be a professor of Shakespeare — indicated her hand. "Milton wrote that this — the thumb — and our decision to live in a society where there are rules to protect those less cunning or powerful than others are what sets us aside from the animal."

It was a great line, expertly delivered and beautifully timed, and one that effectively summed up Grace’s strict law-and-order vision of the justice system. It stuck with me. But I know very little of John Milton’s work, so I asked the CUNY Graduate Center’s Feisal Mohamed, a former president and the current secretary of the Milton Society of America, for context about Grace’s vivid allusion. Mohamed couldn’t recall a passage of Milton that referenced the opposable thumb. But she might have been thinking of Paradise Lost, which does indeed discuss the foundations of human society, as well as beasts and angels.

"What Ms. Grace is describing sounds a lot like treating rules as containing inherent wisdom," Mohamed told me. "Such an attitude is in fact the exact opposite of Milton’s approach to human society, where we must always and energetically subject laws and institutions to the scrutiny of reason."

Nancy Grace’s version of doing "the right thing" might look very different to you, to me, to a crime victim, to a detective, to a wrongful-conviction advocate, to John Milton. But her passage, if not its attribution or interpretation, was apt. All of true crime, and CrimeCon specifically, could stand to benefit from the scrutiny of reason.

Molly Fitzpatrick is a writer from New Jersey who lives in Queens.

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