DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Serial Productions, which is part of New York Times Audio, has just released a new documentary podcast series called "The Coldest Case In Laramie." All eight episodes of the show have been released. It's hosted by Kim Barker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who's covered policing. Podcast critic Nick Quah has this review.
NICK QUAH, BYLINE: In Kim Barker's memory, the city of Laramie, Wyo., where she spent some years as a teenager, was a miserable place.
KIM BARKER: I've always remembered it as a mean town, uncommonly mean, a place of jagged edges and cold people where the wind blew so hard it actually whipped pebbles at you, actually pushed trucks off the highway. Laramie stood at an elevation of more than 7,000 feet and got so socked in by winter storms it felt like we were trapped, like there was no way out. My family moved away before my senior year in high school. I never wanted to go back.
QUAH: A seasoned journalist with The New York Times, Barker is now also the host of "The Coldest Case In Laramie," a new audio documentary series from Serial Productions that brings her back into the jagged edges of her former home. The cold case in question took place almost four decades ago. In 1985, Shelli Wiley, a University of Wyoming student, was brutally killed in her apartment, which was also set ablaze. The ensuing police investigation brought nothing definite. Two separate arrests were eventually made for the crime, but neither stuck. And so for a long time, the case was left to freeze.
At the time of the murder, Barker was a kid in Laramie. The case had stuck with her - its brutality, its open-endedness. Decades later, while waylaid by the pandemic, she found herself checking back on a murder only to find a fresh development. In 2016, a former police officer who had lived nearby the victim's apartment was arrested for the murder on the basis of blood evidence linking him to the scene.
As it turned out, many in the area had long harbored suspicions that he was the culprit. This felt like a definite resolution, but that lead went nowhere as well. Shortly after the arrest, the charges against the officer were surprisingly dropped, and no new charges have been filed since. What exactly is going on here? This is where Barker enters the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE COLDEST CASE IN LARAMIE")
BARKER: There wasn't a whole lot more reporting I could do from my apartment in Brooklyn. Police reports, court filings - none of that was online. Neither were the news reports from back in the day. But lucky for me, it was March 2021, and the vaccines were rolling out in New York. The country was starting to open up again.
(SOUNDBITE OF CAR DOOR CLOSING)
BARKER: So first stop is vaccine and then Laramie, right?
JASMIN SHAH: Directly, just vaccine...
BARKER: Directly. Vaccine...
SHAH: ...Then Laramie.
BARKER: I had a little vacation time, two parents who lived across the country, who I hadn't seen in more than a year. I figured I'd pack up my dog, Lucy, grab my friend Jasmin, and go on a road trip - make a pit stop in Laramie, poke around a little, see what I could see.
SHAH: What do you think, Lucy?
QUAH: "The Coldest Case In Laramie" isn't quite a conventional true crime story. It certainly doesn't want to be. Even the creators explicitly insist the podcast is not a case of whodunit. Instead, the show is best described as an extensive accounting of what happens when the confusion around a horrific crime meets a gravitational pull for closure - it's a mess. At the heart of "The Coldest Case In Laramie" is an interest in the unreliability of memory and the slipperiness of truth.
One of the podcast's more striking moments revolves around a friend of the victim. The woman had a memory of being sent a letter with a bunch of money and a warning to skip town not long after the murder. The message had seared into her brain for decades. But as revealed through Barker's reporting, few things about that memory are what they seem. Barker later presents the woman with pieces of evidence that radically challenge her core memory. You can almost hear a mind change.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "THE COLDEST CASE IN LARAMIE")
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's not the card. That's not - there was something written inside. That's not how I remember that - because why would I be afraid of a - why would I be afraid of $20 bills and a Christmas card? That's not how I - this came to my house, so that - wow. That's not how I remember that.
QUAH: "The Coldest Case In Laramie" is undeniably compelling, but there's also something about the show's underlying themes that feels oddly commonplace. We're currently neck-deep in a documentary boom so utterly dominated by true crime stories that we're pretty much well past the point of saturation. At this point, these themes of unreliable memory and subjective truths feel like they should be starting points for a story like this. And given the pedigree of Serial Productions - responsible for seminal projects like S-Town, "Nice White Parents" and, you know, "Serial" - it's hard not to feel accustomed to expecting something more, a bigger, newer idea on which to hang the story.
Of course, none of this is to undercut the reporting as well as the still, very much important ideas driving the podcast. It will always be terrifying how our justice system depends so much on something as capricious as memory and how different people might look at the same piece of information only to arrive at completely different conclusions. By the end of the series, even Barker begins to reconsider how she remembers the Laramie where she grew up. But the increasingly expected nature of these themes in nonfiction crime narratives start to beg the question, where do we go from here?
DAVIES: Nick Quah is the podcast critic for New York magazine and Vulture. He reviewed "The Coldest Case In Laramie" from Serial Productions. On tomorrow's show, we talk about the movie "Tar" with its star, Cate Blanchett, and the film's screenwriter and director, Todd Field. "Tar" is nominated for six Oscars including best actress for Blanchett and best screenwriter and director for Field as well as best picture. Blanchett plays a famous orchestra conductor on the verge of being canceled. I hope you can join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF REGGIE QUINERLY'S "REFLECTIONS ON THE HUDSON")
DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Susan Nyakundi and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF REGGIE QUINERLY'S "REFLECTIONS ON THE HUDSON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.