Law in Popular Culture

Surviving true crime—from the victims' perspective

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True-crime survivors Terra Newell and Collier Landry come together to interview fellow true-crime survivors. Photo courtesy of the The Survivor Squad.

My regular readers will recognize that it’s been a few weeks since I shared a new column. But it’s not without good reason. First, I’ve had jury trials scheduled back to back. I secured favorable results, but the process I go through for trial prep doesn’t leave much room for anything outside of that preparation. So when I have multiple trials set within a month, I have to pull away from other endeavors and really dig in.

Secondly, I needed a vacation. In past installments (like this one from six years ago—wow, time flies), I’ve discussed the importance of getting away from the office, and I stand by that position. Attorney burnout is real, and if you don’t take the time to take some time off, you’ll likely find yourself in a bad situation mentally and emotionally. Once or twice a year, I like to take enough time away from the office that I want to get back to work. That lets me know I still have the desire and drive to do a challenging job.

Defendant-focused documentaries

When I leave my practice, I try to sever all ties with my professional life. My family and I go far enough away that I can’t be called back on a day’s notice. I instruct my staff to keep my clients happy and address any of their needs. And for the most part, my clients understand that I must sometimes separate myself from the office to operate at a high level while I’m actually at work.

Consequently, I’m try not to actively look for new material for my column while on vacation. As a criminal defense attorney, I live the grind of most true-crime documentaries. With that in mind, if I’m going to disconnect from my practice for a few weeks, I need to disconnect from things that draw me back into the plight of the criminally accused.

Nevertheless, sometimes people reach out and throw a bit of kindling into my creative fire. That’s how I was made aware of the relatively new podcast titled The Survivor Squad.

I only listened to bits and pieces of two episodes. It’s not bad; it just wasn’t my cup of tea. Collier Landry and Terra Newell lead guests through conversations with other crime victims to discuss the intense and traumatic experiences they have survived. The most interesting aspect is that both Landry and Newell are survivors of highly publicized crimes as well.

True-crime from the victims’ perspective isn’t a novel idea. I’ve previously covered shows such as Why Did You Kill Me? However, The Survivor Squad introduces a topic that I haven’t encountered before: victims associating and empathizing with other victims about their status as victims. From my position, it’s compelling but somewhat biased. I’m sure a prosecutor could say the same about your run-of-the-mill defendant-focused offering.

Victim status

Now, those of you who frequent my column know that I sparingly use the term “victim.” Part of that is because of the mass proliferation of labels we already place on people in our everyday lives. Still, a more significant portion of my pessimism concerning that phrase stems from the fact that victimhood is a very specific legal status. It isn’t the case that everyone who complains of suffering some sort of criminal activity is a true victim.

Unless and until an individual is convicted for a complaint of criminal conduct, a would-be victim is nothing more than a “complaining witness.” Referring to a complaining witness as a victim before someone admits guilt under oath—or a fact-finder deciding the complaint is true beyond a reasonable doubt—presupposes guilt and deprives the accused of their opportunity to not only be presumed innocent but also to confront their accusers fairly and unbiasedly.

Consequently, this verbal distinction is something I address during voir dire in in my trial work. I want to plant the seed from day one: No one receives any special status just because they say someone else did something to them. After all, the presumption of innocence is protected by the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution; there’s no language in that document addressing one’s status as a victim. That’s why many states, including Oklahoma, have amended their state constitutions to include “victims’ rights.”

Nevertheless, there is little doubt that the podcast’s two hosts are actual victims in fact and in law. Landry came to national prominence as a 12-year-old witness for the prosecution in an Ohio jury trial who testified that he heard his father kill his mother at their home in the next room over. His father was ultimately convicted of aggravated murder and abuse of a corpse and sentenced to 20 years to life.

Newell was an adult when her mother’s husband, John Meehan, attacked her with a knife, forcing her to turn the blade on her attacker, killing him in the parking lot of her apartment complex in Newport Beach, California. The story of Newell’s mother and Meehan became a podcast and a television drama. Unlike Landry, Newell was old enough to fight back. Still, regardless of the circumstances, both have discussed how challenging their situations are still to this day.

Reopening the wound

Tellingly, those challenges exist even considering the finality of their circumstances. Sadly, though, closure can be temporary.

Sometimes a true-crime documentary will generate so much publicity it leads to further litigation on the defendant’s behalf aimed at reopening the case or perhaps securing a new trial. Over the last year, we saw that with Adnan Syed’s murder conviction, which was examined in the first season of the Serial podcast in 2014. And while plenty of true-crime fans are excited to see new trials ordered in these cases that they have become so invested in, there are various repercussions felt by every aspect of the judicial system. Just as importantly, though, is the fallout felt by the victims and their families, along with the families of the defendants.

For example, in the Syed case, the dismissal and potential new trial were eventually rescinded due to the decedent’s family’s improper notice and time to object in the matter (although that decision is now on appeal as well). Obviously, we all want to see justice prevail, and we want to see the system corrected when it fails. Still, we often glance over the pain and turmoil that all parties and those closely associated with them must withstand when a case is reopened.

Here in Oklahoma, we have some relatively recent firsthand experience. When the U.S. Supreme Court decided McGirt v. Oklahoma, many matters already resolved—some through jury verdict—were remanded to the district courts with instructions to dismiss since the state of Oklahoma lacked jurisdiction to charge cardholding members of federally recognized tribes accused of committing crimes in “Indian Country” (Native American reservations the United States government had/has not disestablished). Many of those matters were then refiled federally so the defendants could be prosecuted within a court of proper jurisdiction.

Opponents of the McGirt decision based their complaints in part on the trauma that relitigating the cases would cause for victims and victims’ family members. While that may be true, and I hate to see anyone suffer twice for the same situation, there must be a line somewhere between victims’ rights and the rights of the criminally accused.

I’ll err on the side of the bedrock principles contemplated by the framers and included in the black-letter language of the U.S. Constitution.

Adam Banner May 2023

Adam Banner

Adam R. Banner is the founder and lead attorney of the Oklahoma Legal Group, a criminal defense law firm in Oklahoma City. His practice focuses solely on state and federal criminal defense. He represents the accused against allegations of sex crimes, violent crimes, drug crimes and white-collar crimes.

The study of law isn’t for everyone, yet its practice and procedure seems to permeate pop culture at an increasing rate. This column is about the intersection of law and pop culture in an attempt to separate the real from the ridiculous.

This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.

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