If you haven’t heard about Convicted, then let us tell you: it’s what the group on the next table in the pub are debating, it’s what everyone on the bus is listening to, it’s the podcast that went straight to the top of the iTunes chart in its first week. And it’s incredible.
After its success (it’s now holding steady at number two), people inevitably started calling Convicted the "new Serial " – the addictive season one broke podcast records (it’s been downloaded over 80 million times) and resulted in its subject, Adnan Syed, being able to appeal for a retrial on his conviction for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee.
But Convicted isn’t the “new Serial ” – yes, they're both female-fronted true crime podcasts, but American Brooke Gittings, who hosts and writes the show, says that she's more the "anti- Serial ". She's not a journalist (her day job is as a social worker) and she records everything from inside her walk-in wardrobe, which is tiny and actually filled with clothes.
The subject of her podcast is Richard Nicolas, who's been in prison since 1996 and therefore has never used the internet or heard a podcast. The reason he wanted Brooke, who also hosts a podcast called Actual Innocence about wrongly convicted prisoners, was that he "knows the power of a podcast" – Serial 's Adnan Syed is on his block in prison.
20 years ago, Richard was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison after being convicted of shooting his 2-year-old daughter Aja. He claims that the death was the result of a road rage incident – while the pair were driving back to Aja's mother's house after a cinema trip, a stranger started driving aggressively and ran Richard's car off the road and down a deserted side road. When he stopped, the stranger shot Aja. Police claim that Richard killed his daughter and made the story up. And here's where the story links to Serial 's again: Richard's legal team included Cristina Gutierrez, who also defended Adnan Syed, and whose competence has been questioned. After the trial, the judge called the outcome “a verdict unworthy of any confidence”.
But that’s where the similarities end: unlike Serial ’s host Sarah Koenig, Brooke isn’t afraid to get wrapped up in the emotion of the story and she’s incredibly empathetic. And the story isn't as straightforward as Serial 's. At the beginning of the podcast, it seems like Richard is the victim of a terrible miscarriage of justice but you can't help but worry: what if he's just an incredibly good liar ... and he did kill his daughter? We called Brooke at home in Indiana to ask her about it.
The podcast has been so successful already and we’re only three episodes in – did you expect this?
No, actually – we [Brooke and Blake Maples, who does the music on the podcast] were both overwhelmed that it had done so well and it had no paid advertising. We're not a part of a network – we don't know people to, like, put us at the top of the charts, so it's just been overwhelming and amazing.
People have been calling Convicted “the new Serial ”…
It’s terrifying and it’s not true! I have so much respect for Serial and Sarah Koenig and all of the work that she did, and I really feel like she paved the way for episodic podcasting, and I think that it's very, very flattering to be compared to her, but in no way is it the same thing. Because I'm fairly sure my closet doesn't look like the studio she worked from [laughs], and me editing in my pyjamas on my Mac laptop doesn't look like the process Sarah Koenig goes through to create her show. I know some people that are like, 'She's trying to copy Serial ', but that's not it at all. What I'm trying to do is make the podcast that I would want to listen to.
Were you worried about taking on a case that has such an emotive subject, which is the death of a child? Were you worried about opening old wounds for Lisa [Aja’s mother, who doesn’t appear on the podcast]?
Yes, and right near the beginning I found her address and I wrote her a letter, and I didn't hear back. I sent her a follow-up letter that basically just said, 'Just wanted to make sure you got my letter, if you want to talk, I totally get it, if you don't want to talk, I totally get it'. Because I know that it's like ripping a band aid off a wound that is never going to heal. But I think that also if Richard did not get a fair trial, if this isn't what really happened, then two people are suffering, you know? I just feel terrible for her, I feel terrible that this entire thing had to happen. And being a social worker I want to tell her, you know, my intentions are to be helpful and to get to the bottom of what really happened. So I just wanted to make sure that Lisa knew what I was doing and why I was doing it. And I haven't heard back from her.
Did you ever doubt that Richard was innocent?
I don't know. To be honest, I have tried to keep an open mind throughout all of this. I mean, I've talked to him for almost a year now and I have a really good bullshit detector [laughs] and he has never given me any inkling that he has been anything but sincere with me. But I don't know. I think I even said that in one of the episodes – 'maybe he is this fantastical liar' – but I don't think so. Regardless if he is an innocent man or if he's not, that's not what's important right now in the story. What's important is that the steps that have led to him being arrested have not been fair. So if one person, regardless of innocence or guilt, doesn't get a fair trial or a fair go through the legal system, that paves the way for everyone to not have a fair trial or a fair go through the legal system.
Are you worried people might think your podcast is exploitative or it's using this tragedy for profit?
Let me think of how to word this... No. But, I mean, yes, but this podcast was not my idea [laughs]. Richard is on board with this podcast more than anyone, and it was brought to me by his attorney. If people want to be upset with me for bringing this to light, I'm okay with that, like, I can take it. I'm not motivated by success. Yes, I'm thrilled that I'm number two right now on the iTunes chart, because that means a lot of people are listening to this story, but right now I have made negative thousands of dollars on this podcast. So my mission is accomplished – my mission is for people to listen and realise what kind of injustice is happening.
Obviously when Serial came out, Adnan Syed probably didn't know if anybody would listen, but now that's been so huge, does Richard expect the same level of success?
Of course he's hopeful but I've told him over and over again, 'Don't get false hope, because this is the only thing I can promise you, is that more people are going to know about your story. I can't promise you that you're going to get a new trial'. I'm not going to try and talk for Richard, but in my impression in talking to him – I think the last time I spoke to him was last week – I said, 'We're doing well on the charts', I told him how many people had listened to that point, and I said the reviews had been mildly positive, except about my ‘little girl voice’, and people are hearing your story. Our mission is being accomplished, people are understanding what's happening. And I think he's okay with that.
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