Direct Appeal · Charlie Says · Lone Star Justice
Plus: The DC Mansion Murders, Linda "The Welfare Queen" Taylor, and To Live and Die In LA
Direct Appeal is a solid podcast for the process-oriented. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the series focuses on the details -- hosts Meghan Sacks and Amy Shlosberg are both academics, profs of Criminology at Fairleigh Dickinson University. They’re not trying to razzle-dazzle listeners, they’re trying to do a thorough and comprehensive job explaining the case and their investigation. The results from this approach are mixed: You’re not left with any lingering questions or the sensation that leaps were made to forward a narrative or to keep the story going. But you might also find yourself wishing they’d pick up the pace, or elucidate things a little less thoroughly. (Here’s an example: in the second episode the two spend valuable time explaining exactly what being “comped” in a casino means. Folks, we all saw Rain Man, we know how the world works.)
Sacks says she began began speaking with the podcast’s subject -- the so-called “Suitcase Killer” Melanie McGuire -- back in 2017, after growing intrigued by McGuire’s insistence on her innocence. (It was a few months later that McGuire exhausted New Jersey’s appeal process, making her life sentence for the 2004 slaying and subsequent dismemberment of her husband, Bill, permanent.) After their first meeting, Sacks (a former probation officer) said she was stumped on how to further explore the case. Her boyfriend and another pal suggested a podcast, and now we have Direct Appeal.
As that story might suggest, while Sacks and Shlosberg are engaging hosts and conscientious narrators, they make some decisions that a more experienced team might not -- for example, they rarely seem content to allow an interview clip to speak for itself, instead following it with either a reaction or an explication. Similarly, while they repeatedly tell listeners that their approach is an unbiased one and that they aren’t assuming McGuire’s innocence, they also say that out of respect for the victim, neither Sacks nor Shlosberg has reached out to his family (they should “feel free to contact us,” they say).
I don’t think that the decision not to approach Bill’s survivors was a nefarious one, especially given the academic rigor with which the pair approach their subject. Instead, I suspect it comes from a place of discomfort, which is understandable but needs to be surmounted. It’s understandable not to want to talk to the intimates of a man who was poisoned, shot, and chopped up into bits, especially when you’re coming at the case from inside the supposer do-er’s prison. Their reluctance to approach those close to the victim concerns me, as it makes me wonder what other tough situations they might duck in the episodes ahead. -- EB
Hey, guys, remember that episode of Doctor Who where the Doctor leads a hippie mass-murdering sex cult after his music career tanks? Okay, I made up that plotline (though, who knows, that show’s been on for over half a century, maybe they did run a yarn like that one?) but your eyes do not deceive you -- that’s former Doctor Matt Smith in the wig and beard above, playing Charles Manson.
The property’s called Charlie Says, and it was released in U.S. theaters on May 10. It’s directed by Mary Harron (she’s the one behind the film adaptation of American Psycho, I Shot Andy Warhol, and Alias Grace) and is based on Karlene Faith’s The Long Prison Journey Of Leslie van Houten: Life Beyond The Cult. (Other cast members include Chace Crawford as Manson pal Tex Watson, Merritt Wever as Faith, and Annabeth Gish as prison warden Virginia Carlson.)
So far, reviews have been mixed: Rolling Stone’s David Fear says that the film distinguishes itself with its focus on the female members of the cult, but that “the actors are ‘playing’ a production of the Manson family’s story rather than telling it.” Dan Callahan of The Wrap praises the production’s sound design, but says Smith and Crawford are dreadfully miscast. And writing for the NY Times, Manohla Dargis is perhaps the reviewer who liked Charlie Says the most, saying that it is “powerful and deeply affecting” and a “complex, nuanced story.” -- EB
Former Smith County, TX Sheriff J.B. Smith has traded his career as a motivational speaker for televised true crime. According to a press release from Investigation Discovery, Smith and his “handpicked team of detectives” will investigate area crimes in a show they’re calling Lone Star Justice.
Smith was Smith County (No relation? Some relation? Beats me) Sheriff from 1976 to 2012 (when he was replaced by Sheriff Larry Smith WHAT IS GOING ON IN TEXAS?!?), after which he embarked the speaking circuit with a message of dumb rookies and weird-looking deputies. Apparently I’m not the only person who’s watched most of Smith’s YouTube clips, as ID plays up the outsized nature of Smith’s personality, saying it’s suited to “larger-than-life crimes.”
Topics covered by the show (which kicks off at 9 PM on June 5) include a 2010 slaying of Amanda Anderson (nearly nine-year-old spoiler alert: Anderson’s brother was convicted in the case), the supposed suicide of Calvin Fields (’twas his wife, with a 90-year sentence), and the capital murder case of Jeffery Joplin (five do-ers, last sentence meted out in 2004). So, yeah, this isn’t a series of on-the-ground investigations -- this is a night out with a bunch of old cops, each of whom is telling tales from the field. Yeah, I’ll give this one a shot. -- EB
22 Hours: An American Nightmare will drop on June 10. The 10-episode podcast from WTOP journos will cover the DC Mansion Murders, the suspect in which was sentenced to four life sentences in February. The trailer for the show is here. -- EB
Slate is breaking down an infamous case of welfare fraud with The Queen. If you’ve heard the phrase “welfare queen” you’ve probably heard of Linda Taylor, who was used as a poster child for the flaws of public services during Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns. Host Josh Levin might be one of the foremost experts on the case, as he’s been covering Taylor for over seven years and has penned a book on her life of crime that (quelle podcast coïncidence) drops on May 21. The pod kicked off on Monday and is available here. -- EB
To Live and Die in L.A. has hit a download landmark. The podcast, which as you likely know is a real-life, real-time investigation into the death of Adea Shabani, has hit 15 million downloads for its 11 episodes and three months in the game, Fast Company reports. Are you one of those 15 million folks, and if so, what do you think of the show? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org (or tweet us @blotterpresents) and let us know what you think. -- EB
What is this thing? This should help.