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Why the Murdaugh trial has had audiences hooked

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A South Carolina jury has found attorney Alex Murdaugh guilty of the murders of his wife and son. The case has been a regular fixture on cable news. There have been podcasts, and it's also the subject of two popular documentary series on Netflix and HBO Max. We wanted to take some time to explore why so many people are drawn to stories like this one. And earlier today, my colleague Juana Summers spoke to Neal Baer, former executive producer of "Law & Order: SVU," about American audiences' facination with crime stories.

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

I want to start by talking specifically about the Murdaugh case. This is a story, of course, about real loss of lives, but it is also one that has captivated audiences across the United States. So I'm curious, why do you think there is? Are there specific things about this case that you think have really hooked people?

NEAL BAER: Sure. It's very much like "SVU" in the sense that it has human depravity. It has families. It has greed. It has wealth. It has comeuppance. It has all the things in life that are exciting that we don't experience ourselves, hopefully. But we're drawn to it. We're drawn to these kinds of people and what makes them tick. What made them do it? How did they get into so much trouble that they would turn to do such terrible, terrible things?

You know, also, the audience is really attached to the science of the forensics. So they want to know, like, everything about the DNA, everything about transfer of evidence. So it's a mixture of the evidence, the science and, of course, human greed and a very, very wealthy old family from South Carolina - all the elements that make for a really kind of interesting, messy story.

SUMMERS: I'd love to just ask you for your thoughts about the proliferation of true crime media today. I mean, this case already has several documentary series about it, and there could be more in the works. The genre's really exploded.

BAER: Right. Well, also, I think people like to have endings, and they like to have justice. I think that's been a big, big selling point for "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" for year 24 that it's been on - that we get the bad guys. And so I think that that's a real strong pull, particularly in these very stormy times where we don't know right from wrong and we're fighting with one another. We want clear heroes, and we want victims to find justice and to be saved.

SUMMERS: I mean, given the fact that there are so many crime shows and crime franchises and the fact that they're all so incredibly successful, do you think that primes us to approach real cases, in some ways, as entertainment?

BAER: Yes, I think that there is probably a desensitization that happens when we see so much crime. Maybe it makes us feel, in some ways, safer that we can be listening to it within the safety of our own homes. But on the other hand, we don't know who's carrying a gun in many places now in the United States. So it's a very scary place to be.

And so I think these shows, even though we travel and promote crime, we at least at "SVU" solve the case. And the bad guy or bad woman got their comeuppance and justice was served. So it's a kind of, you know, a Catch-22. We're getting more and more because I think there's more and more fear, so we look to these programs to give us some sustenance and some hope, and yet in and of themselves that - they probably promote more fear.

SUMMERS: Neal Baer is the former executive producer for "Law & Order: SVU." Thank you so much.

BAER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.