Spotlight On: In the Dark Podcast Season Two and the Case of Curtis Flowers

itdThe timing here is uncanny. In the Dark was always going to be my Spotlight post for this month, but a few days ago, major news came out about the case, which I’ll link to at the end.

In the Dark is a podcast put out by APM Reports. The first season of the podcast focused on the kidnapping of Jacob Wetterling in Minnesota, one of the first missing children cases to get national attention. While they were reporting, though it was decades later, some major news came out about the case, which informed the podcast. In Season One, they discuss the case, the handling of it, and its implications on a national level. It was really well done, and the host, Madeleine Baron, has a way of reporting and interviewing that’s disarming and unassuming and supremely listenable.

Season One was good. But Season Two is in a category all its own. Madeleine and her reporting team moved to Mississippi for a year to fully investigate and report on the case of Curtis Flowers.

At first listen, Season Two starts like many other true crime podcasts, with details about the case, a quadruple murder in July 1996, and comments from the community and victims’ families. There are two things that set it apart. The first is not as big as the second, and that’s that they take the time to examine the evidence-based basis of certain forensic sciences, especially matching bullets to guns. The evidence-based scientists in me loves to hear it, and it’s interesting how people in the profession hold on to certainty about it even though the science and evidence says otherwise.

The other aspect that sets this apart immediately as not your average true crime podcast is that the convicted man, Curtis Flowers, was tried SIX TIMES for the murders. Some trials ended in mistrials. Some ended in convictions and death sentences that were later overturned because of prosecutorial misconduct. At the start of the podcast, Curtis and his team are trying to repeal his latest conviction and its death sentence.

There is also a huge racial divide in the community and what they about the case. Curtis Flowers is a Black man, and as Madeleine points out, and shows with interview tape, most Black members of the town think he’s innocent while most white members think he’s guilty. There is a lot of animosity, still, twenty plus years later, and there have been acts of violence like fires set to his parents’ house while he’s in jail.

Okay, there’s a third thing that sets this podcast apart, and that’s the journalism work that Madeleine and her team do. For one thing, they talk to everyone, on any side, and include it. Even when it’s the gun and bullets forensic issue, they talk to people involved in researching the evidence on that not being such an exact science as CSI would like us to believe, and to people who think that’s hooey and still claim absolute certainty.

And then there’s the lengths they go to in searching out records, and in trying to talk to people. The same DA, Doug Evans, has been the one to bring charges and try the case all six times, even though he was also the one committing prosecutorial misconduct that got the convictions and death sentences appealed. They go to great lengths looking into his record (and spoiler alert, it’s full of racial bias, especially when it comes to striking potential jurors) and also in trying to talk to him.

One gets the sense in listening, that a lot of the work, especially the sorting through records, was extremely tedious and time-consuming and painstaking. And yet the thoroughness was important enough to do it all and do it well. Sometimes I think this team must be full of patient saints, not just in dealing with that, but also in trying to talk to people and ask the tough questions, but to always do so in a friendly and unassuming way.

Oh yeah, and if all of that’s not enough to convince anyone it’s worth listening to, I’m pretty sure they find the guy who really did commit the crimes, not something that most true crime podcasts can say. And they can’t come out and say it, journalistically and ethically, but still, it seems at least likely that they found the murderer. And they have the same patience and friendly approach in talking to him too.

Some of this makes for uncomfortable listening. The DA, the probable real killer, and others, don’t make for easy interviews and can be outright hostile (understatement) to Madeleine and her team. The team strikes me as having a lot of guts in taking this on.

At the original end of Season Two, it leaves off where most true crime podcasts do, at a conclusion without a lot of resolution. But then! The case goes to the US Supreme Court, and the In the Dark team reports and podcasts from that as well. Actually, the podcast, and the investigative journalism the team did, gets brought up A LOT at the SCOTUS trial.

I wasn’t going to say how it ends because I think everyone should listen to it. But, I think we’re all in need of some happy-ish news. SCOTUS decided in favor of Curtis Flowers and found evidence of racial bias in Doug Evans’ jury selection processes (it’s really pretty dramatic). Then, at some point thereafter, Curtis was released from prison, but a seventh round of charges and trials were still pending. Then Doug Evans had to recuse himself. And just a few days ago, all charges were finally dropped.

So it’s a happy-ish ending. Happy because things worked out well in the end, but ish because the man was in prison for over twenty years for something he almost certainly didn’t do and he lost all that time in his life, and was denied a temporary release to go to his mother’s funeral, and all the other losses that come with a wrongful conviction. Not to mention he spent most of that time with a death sentence over his head.

To sum up: the case is compelling, the reporting is top-notch in its breadth and depth and inclusiveness, the sound quality is so good you don’t notice it, and it gets into a lot more, a lot more, than just the crime. Personally, that’s what I look for in a true crime podcast, something with more to it to dig into and chew on and get passionate about, and this has all of that in spades.

This spring, they also did a short run (6 episodes) called Coronavirus in the Delta, where they went back to MS and reported on how the region was reacting to the pandemic. I haven’t listened to it yet–to be honest, once covid hit my pop culture consumption pretty quickly skewed towards the least serious it could get, and even with starting a re-listen of In the Dark for this post, I had to intersperse it with episodes of the Rosecast with Rim and AB (aka the best Bachelor recap postcast hosted by a male interracial best freind duo) because my mental space for the more serious is severely limited–but I’ve heard great things about it.

And I’ve heard some of those great things from the podcast that originally brought me to In the Dark back in Season One, and that is Crime Writers On. Gotta shout them out on here again because they may be my longest-listening podcast, they introduced me to In the Dark and many other great podcasts (and have saved me from some terrible ones) and they also just released a post-charges-dropped interview with Madeleine of In the Dark.

So, here you go, here is the site for In the Dark, with links to both seasons, and how to listen on all the podcast platforms.

In the Dark from APM Reports

Happy Listening!

-April

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Spotlight On is a monthly column, coming out on mid-month, featuring pop culture that addresses race and/or disability.

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