If Childish Gambino’s song “This is America” and Boots Riley’s film Sorry to Bother You perfectly distill the absurd comedy and violent hell of the United States circa 2018, then Madeleine Baran’s In the Dark does the same in podcast form. The audio-documentary series dropped the haunting final episode of its second season earlier this month, and, like Donald Glover’s and Riley’s works, Baran’s opus lays bare the nexus of racial anxiety, guns, criminal “justice,” and capitalism in our nation.
In the Dark is produced by APM Reports and hosted by lead reporter Baran, who helms an investigative team of a half dozen journalists who work on a single story for a year. Season 1 investigated the 1989 abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in rural Minnesota. Wetterling’s fate went unsolved for almost 27 years, during which he became the poster child for dangerous misconceptions about child kidnappings. But unlike the purveyors of many true-crime series, Baran and her team do not hype hysteria. Rather, they reveal how those in positions of power—like the local sheriff, politicians, and huckster John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted—were incompetent and exploitative of the Wetterlings. (Danny Heinrich, an early but largely unpursued suspect, confessed in 2016 as part of plea deal over child-pornography charges.)
Baran dispels American anxieties about “stranger danger”—the fear that someone unknown will run off with a child “in the dark”—and she critically examines the exceptional ways alleged sex crimes have been regulated since Wetterling’s abduction. As sociologist Trevor Hoppe has written, the number of people on sex registries in the United States is surging toward 1 million. In the Dark shows the problems this has caused: People who’ve completed their sentences are often consigned to a lifetime of forced homelessness; individuals are placed on such registries for public urination; and the US State Department is planning to mark passports of people who have been convicted of sex crimes (even though the United States has never before marked passports for any offense, including murder). In one of Baran’s most amazing interviews, Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling, says she regrets her role in allowing sex-offender lists to flourish and that the possibility of rehabilitation should trump desires for revenge. After meeting a teen convicted of a sex crime for exploring sex with his cousin, she said, “We need as a culture to protect our children better, not to arrest a child for inappropriate sexual conduct and put them on a registry.”
But if Season 1 was a macro look at the effects the Wetterling murder had on American sex panic and the overblown anxieties of heterosexual white parents, then Season 2 of In the Dark is a micro look at systemic racism in the criminal-justice system. Baran and her team moved to tiny Winona, Mississippi, (population 4,000) to investigate the many prosecutions of Curtis Flowers, a black man who has been tried six times over 21 years for a quadruple murder. Two trials have resulted in hung juries, three have led to convictions that have been overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court for prosecutorial misconduct, and—in the last trial in 2010—Flowers was convicted and sentenced to death. After each of the first five trials, Flowers’s case was sent back for prosecution by the same white district attorney, Doug Evans, despite the fact that he repeatedly peddled in racist and illegal tactics. (Flowers’s attorneys have petitioned the US Supreme Court with new findings from In the Dark.)
Baran contextualizes race (of black people and white) in every episode of Season 2, including narrating the 1955 killing of Emmett Till nearby and investigating the ant-integration atmosphere of District Attorney Evans’s childhood. If her work casting further doubt on Flowers’s innocence does not get him a new trial, Flowers will be executed in Parchman Prison, a penitentiary she notes “was founded more than a century ago as a way to imprison black people after the end of slavery and make money off their labor.” Even outside prison, many witnesses seem beholden to racial capitalism, as they seem tempted by small reward sums and feel coerced to testify out of fear of the police. And a huge financial and emotional toll is paid by Flowers’s parents, who spend their savings on their son’s defense, visit him every two weeks, and have their house burned to the ground after the black people of Winona tried to support them in their fight justice. Just this week, Flowers’s mother, Lola, died, without ever seeing resolution for her son, whose innocence she never doubted.
Season 2 also skewers ballistics as a science, a field that has been in the crosshairs since a 2010 report from the National Academy of Sciences said it does not adhere to basic scientific principles such as setting up a testable hypothesis. David Ballash, the ballistics expert in the Flower case, tells Barran that, while he had to use “mental gymnastics” to determine two bullets came from the same gun, he is nonetheless 100 percent certain of his judgment. Scientists questioning his expertise, he says, are just trying to be “politically correct.”
But like others in In the Dark, Ballash is a white man unused to having his authority questioned. He’s a strong foil to Baran, who told me she was unconcerned with how people perceived her gendered voice, and that being a woman is “more helpful than not” as a reporter, “because we seem pretty non-threatening.” Yet like all the members of her team except for one man of color, Baran is a white woman, too. “In more candid moments, when people were expressing viewpoints that are racist, the fact that I am a white reporter made that much more easier to get,” she said. (While this is true, it is not impossible for black reporters to do the same. The GQ profile “A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof” by black journalist Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah is a fantastic example of this.)
In the Dark was made with reporters talking to dozens of people, often just by showing up on their doors—and how this was possible is highly instructive about media production in America. As producer Samara Freemark told me, everyone saw us “walking around town, often carting a long microphone that looks like a weapon.” The weekend before we spoke, Oregon State Representative Janelle Bynum had police called for knocking on her constituents’ doors. When I mentioned this to Freemark, she said, “Right. It’s an incredible privilege to be walking about town not worried about law enforcement—which isn’t how it should be.”
One of the most fascinating racial deep dives of In the Dark is on the jurors of Flowers’s many trials. Episode 7 (“The Trials of Curtis Flowers”) is a striking portrait of systemic racism in America’s juries, in which we hear how white jurors imagine themselves, incorrectly, as impartial thinkers (they all vote guilty, while black jurors are split). We also learn that the DA is allowed to repeatedly keep off potential black jurors, and witness a black juror being jailed for voting not guilty. After declaring a mistrial because James Bibbs wouldn’t vote guilty, the judge accused Bibbs of having lied during jury selection (about a question the transcript would show he had never been asked). The judge ordered him to jail, and recommended perjury charges to the same DA that Bibbs had just prevented from winning a case. With no evidence, those charges were eventually dropped, but that wild moment was caught on video and sent a warning to anyone who’d vote not guilty.
There was never any physical evidence against Flowers—just circumstantial evidence about Flowers’s alleged route, use of a gun, and jailhouse confession (all discredited by Baran’s reporting). It was “never a strong case” for the prosecution, as producer Freemark told me. And yet, when Freemark interviewed jurors, she said, “What struck me most about that phenomenon is that it seemed like the absence of evidence became a strength in their minds.”
The series title refers most literally to how Jacob Wetterling was snatched “in the dark” by a stranger (and, perhaps, to a spooky pathway in the Season 2 finale). But In the Dark elicits much more legitimate fears than of child abduction. The podcast makes terrifyingly clear how in the dark America is about the failures of its criminal-justice system in Season 1 and how in the dark the country is about racist miscarriages of justice that may send an innocent man to his death in Season 2. But what frightened me most in this series is its portrait of America itself as a violent animal thrashing about without direction. When crimes happen, all that matters is that someone gets punished—but it doesn’t really matter who they are or whether they are guilty. Baran and her team give us a racist, sex panicked, prosecutorial country lashing out to harm or, if District Attorney Evans gets his way, kill anyone in arm’s reach—regardless of their innocence.