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9 true crime shows that have reopened cases: from Mr Bates vs the Post Office to Unsolved Mysteries

Cases that were reopened thanks to true crime TV shows, podcasts and movies


Toby Jones as Alan Bates in Mr Bates vs The Post Office© ITV STUDIOS
Emmy Griffiths
TV & Film Editor
January 12, 2024
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Sometimes it takes a show like ITVX’s Mr Bates vs the Post Office to show the power of what a TV show can do, especially when it reunites it’s viewers following clear injustices. But this is far from the first show that has made real-world changes following its release. True crime podcasts, TV shows and movies have reopened cold cases and led to new evidence being uncovered. 

From podcasts that have resulted in arrests to movies that have seen murder charges overturned, here are the true crime shows that truly made a difference…

Toby Jones as Alan Bates and Julie Hesmondhalgh as Suzanne© ITV STUDIOS

Mr Bates vs the Post Office

Based on the true story of Alan Bates, a sub-postmaster who led a legal battle after postmasters around the country were accused of committing theft and fraud, with some even convicted, when the money disappearances were down to the post office’s faulty computer program, Horizon. 

The show has been watched by 9 million people so far, with over 100 people coming forward for the first time due to their connection with the scandal, which Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has recently called an "appalling miscarriage of justice". The show has also resulted in ex-Post Office CEO Paula Vennells handing back for CBE.

In a statement, she said: "I am… aware of the calls from sub-postmasters and others to return my CBE. I have listened and I confirm that I return my CBE with immediate effect. I am truly sorry for the devastation caused to the sub-postmasters and their families, whose lives were torn apart by being wrongly accused and wrongly prosecuted as a result of the Horizon system." 

Your Own Backyard© Axel Koester

Your Own Backyard

In 2019, podcaster Chris Lambert recounted the details surrounding the death of Kristin Smart, a student who went missing in 2002 after going home from a party. A friend, Paul Flores, reportedly helped her get home. 

Chris’ podcast led to a new billboard being made to appeal for information about Kirstin’s disappearance. In 2020, it was confirmed that police had obtained search warrants for four locations relating to the case after key witnesses came forward. 

After searching the areas, police discovered DNA evidence that Kristin’s body had been buried under Flores’ father’s home before it had been recently moved. Flores was arrested, and sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2023. 

Unsolved Mysteries

Unsolved Mysteries

Netflix’s hit series included the story of Kayla Unbehaun, who had disappeared after being abducted by her mother. The show included an age-progressed photo of Kayla and how she might look now, aged 15. 

As a result, a store owner in North Carolina believed to have spotted the teenager, who was indeed the missing girl who disappeared six years earlier. Speaking to ABC News, the unnamed shop owner said: "It was the right thing to do." Her mother, Heather, has been arrested and charged with child abduction.

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst

Robert Durst was the subject of the 2015 documentary, which looked at the murders of three women closely linked to the wealthy real estate heir; his first wife, Kathleen McCormack Durst, his long-time friend Susan Berman, and his neighbour, Morris Black. 

While he appeared in the documentary to deny having any involvement in the deaths, he accidentally left his microphone on while in the bathroom, and he is heard saying to himself: "There it is. You're caught! .... You're right, of course. But you can't imagine. ... Arrest him ... I don't know what's in the house ... Oh, I want this ... What a disaster ... He was right. I was wrong. And the burping ... I'm having difficulty with the question ... What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course."

He was arrested for first-degree murder two months after the series aired for the first time. While he was previously acquitted of murdering Morris Black, he was arrested for Susan German’s murder and sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. He was later also charged with Kathleen’s disappearance but died of a cardiac arrest in 2022 before the trial began. Kathleen’s family filed a wrongful death suit against Durst’s estate. It was ruled in 2023 that the family’s case could proceed.  

Chris Dawson arrives at Downing Centre Local Court on February 10, 2020 in Sydney, Australia© Jenny Evans

The Teacher's Pet

Hosted by Hedley Thomas, this Australian podcast looked into the disappearance of Lynette Dawson, who vanished in 1982. The podcast became a massive success, reaching the number one spot on the podcast charts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the UK – but it did much more than that. 

After Hedley uncovered new evidence and examined the police's reactions to the incident, Lynette's husband Chris Dawson was arrested and extradited to Sydney. He pleaded not guilty to the crime but was found guilty in August 2022, with the judge claiming there to be a "most compelling body of evidence" to go against claims that Lynette simply left her family. Dawson was sentenced to 24 years in prison in 2022. 

Serial© Baltimore Sun

Serial

As the podcast had arguably kick-started a new wave of interest in true crime, Serial was a roaring success, with listeners adamant that the police convicted the wrong man for the murder of 18-year-old Hae Min Lee. Adnan Syed, who has been in prison since 2000, was granted a new trial in 2016.

He was cleared of all charges in 2022 after prosecutors discovered new DNA evidence appearing to show that he was not involved in Hae’s murder. However, an appeals court reinstated his conviction in March 2023, resulting in a new hearing to determine whether Adnan would return to prison, or for the case to be thrown out. 

Making a Murderer

Making a Murderer

The Netflix series looks at the conviction of Steven Avery and his nephew, Brendan Dassey, for the murder of Theresa Halbach. While convicted in 2007, the reaction from the crime documentary led to a federal judge overturning Brendan's conviction because his confession had been coerced. 

However, prosecutors appealed the decision, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit eventually ruled that Brendan's confession was properly obtained in 2018.

Meanwhile, Steven's petition requesting an evidentiary hearing for a new trial was granted by the Wisconsin Court of Appeals. His lawyer, Kathleen Zellner, recently tweeted: "If you think Steven Avery has given up on being freed think again!!! He is surrounded by people who love & support him. We work on his case every day & we will prevail...you can count on it!!"

The Thin Blue Line© Bettmann

The Thin Blue Line

Released back in 1988, the film looked at the life of Randall Dale Adams, who was convicted and placed on death row for the murder of a police officer, Robert Wood. 

His sentence was based on the testimony of David Ray Harris, who was suspected to be the actual perpetrator. The lawyers who represented him during the trial claimed that Randall was only charged as he would be tried as an adult while David was still a minor.

Six months after the film's release, Randall was released from prison after 12 years with his sentence overturned. He never received compensation for his wrongful conviction. David was incidentally executed by lethal injection for another unrelated murder. He died of brain tumour in 2010, aged 61. 

The Staircase© Raleigh News & Observer

The Staircase

Michael Peterson was accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen, and hired a film crew to document the cases, allegedly stating that he didn't believe that he would have a fair trial after claiming that his wife died after falling down the stairs. 

Michael was convicted of the murder before he was granted a new trial when a witness (the blood spatter expert) gave a misleading testimony. Michael submitted an Alford plea – where a defendant asserts innocence while admitting that the evidence would find them guilty, and was released due to time already service. 

Speaking about whether he believed the documentary had an impact in Michael's case, his lawyer David Rudolf told Metro: "It was really Michael who said, 'You know, I'm not going to get a fair trial here, and I'd like to have a record, if you will, of what happens.' I was reluctant at best, and opposed for the most part… I feel okay about how it came out."