Like true crime? Don’t forget to grab your tickets to Death Becomes Us, our true crime festival! It will be in D.C. from November 8-10, 2019.
Phoebe Judge’s voice is quiet and thoughtful the way Criminal is quiet and thoughtful, finding the intimate stories that sort of slip between the cracks. I think people often assume passion is boisterous and loud but that’s not the case with Criminal. You get to know the subjects of her stories in ways you often can’t with other podcasts. It’s oddly comforting for a true crime podcast, and that’s what I like about it.
Brightest Young Things: I have one question for you but I leave room for tangents because I’m kind of a tangent queen. You feel very direct to me.
Phoebe Judge: I’ve been charged with being direct before. I don’t think it’s a good thing to be called direct all the time. I think I might be a direct person.
BYT: Well we’re gonna undirect you today my friend! So, why true crime?
PJ: You know four years ago when Lauren Spohrer and I started Criminal…I could lie and say I’m more interested in crime than about a million other topics but that’s not the truth. The truth is that crime stories are usually good stories, intriguing stories, stories that will make a listener perk up. When we started the podcast there were really no other true crime podcasts. This was a year before Serial.
When Lauren said let’s do a show about crime…people who listen to public radio also watch Law & Order. They may not want to admit it but they do. I thought it was the smartest idea because I thought we would never run out of stories. We were going to take a broad approach to the word crime by surprising people by how big a topic it actually is. We do stories that are sometimes very funny and sometimes very tragic. It wasn’t our job to judge whether someone was good or bad or right or wrong. Our only intention was to find out why people do the things they do. that’s it. That was our only interest. I hope that we held true to that for almost 100 episodes, this idea that the judgment that comes along with crime…labeling people bad or evil, that’s the boring part. Our only interest is why they do it.
BYT: I agree. I think the psychological aspect of criminals and crime is more fascinating than the crime itself even though I personally have been, at times, a little morbid and a little macabre. I often want more details for reasons I can’t pinpoint. I’ve never been able to answer the question of why I have this high tolerance for the gruesome. I know you said we’re not looking at people as good or bad but out of 100 episodes have you thought to yourself “This person is bad.” There was something in that person that was not good.
PJ: I don’t think people are bad. I think people are screwed up, horrible things happen to them that put them on a trajectory they cannot escape. I think people suffer from mental illness which makes them do horrible things. I think people are insecure so they act out of insecurity and try to make others feel bad and themselves feel more powerful by exerting power over others in terrible ways. I don’t think people are bad. I’ve never thought it. I’ve talked to murderers…
BYT: I’m still getting through all of your episodes, which episode was that?
PJ: We did an episode called Bloodlines. The subject’s name was Julius Robinson. He had just gotten out of prison for killing a man. Even within the prison system he was incredibly violent. I sat next to him and talked to him about why he did the things that he did and what it was like to pull the trigger. I did not walk away thinking this was a bad man. I walked away even more intrigued by what happened in his circumstances to make him have the ability to shoot another person.
BYT: Do you think the way we now address mental illness has changed how we approach criminals or crime? It seems like we’re more open about discussing mental illness, and that maybe people are willing to get help?
PJ: Oh I think the mental health system in this country is as screwed up now as it was 50 years ago. I think if you look at what’s going on in the prisons, at reports coming out all the time…there is so little mental health care for those that are incarcerated it’s pathetic. I think that while the stigma of talking about mental illness has lessened…I think that still in many many socioeconomic situations mental health is not a priority. There is not enough treatment. Therapy is expensive. I think it’s a tremendous problem. I think it plays a great role in many of the crimes that take place.
BYT: Are we not treating people for purely financial reasons or at the end of the day is it that prisons aren’t there to make people better. That old saying “prisons make better criminals,” is possibly true?
PJ: I think there are not enough rehabilitation programs inside of prisons and many people are biding their time waiting to be released into the same situation they were in when they came in. However there are also some incredible mental health programs in prison but there just aren’t enough.
BYT: I know some prisons have yoga programs which I think is wonderful. One of the reasons I really like your podcast is the stories are smaller. How do you find these stories?
PJ: We do want to do stories that surprise people, that they haven’t heard of before. If we feel like a story has been covered really heavily in the news we decide not to do it. I always sometimes find the smaller stories, the tiny stories are the most intriguing because you can blow them apart and look at them from all angles.
For us one of the keys is that we really want to have someone who has direct experience with the topic we’re talking about. We really want someone who has a stake in the story as the main speaker. But also Lauren and Nadia Wilson and I have all worked in public radio for years. Our jobs as producers is to find the interesting stories. We always have our eyes open, looking at papers or magazines or online. We’re constantly pitching each other ideas or thinking about topics, but we’re also interested in having a broad stroke.
BYT: I also think you can identify a bit more with these people because they aren’t the Jeffrey Dahmers of the world who have done such egregious things that you put them into this category of “monster.” At any point you think that could be me. I told you in an email that the first time I heard about the owl theory regarding who killed Katherine Peterson was on your podcast. The episode was devoted entirely to animal-related murders. Do you believe the owl did it?
PJ: I don’t know if I believe the owl did it but what was so interesting about that episode was the idea for even 1/8 of a second that we could put into your mind that the owl did do it. That’s all we wanted, to raise doubt that maybe the owl could have done it. I don’t know if the owl did do it. I’ve never actually seen The Staircase.
BYT: The Staircase aired before the owl theory came about and honestly if I was on that jury and someone presented the owl theory that would be enough to raise doubt for me. After doing this podcast for 4 years do you have any favorite episodes?
BYT: I LOVED that episode. I called my mother, furious that she didn’t create that same life for me. That was a thrilling episode. I urge everyone to listen to that episode. Listening to this family laugh about how morbid their dinner discussions are was wonderful.
PJ: Another different type of story, more serious, was episode 82.
BYT: Have you been personally affected by any of the stories? Any that kind of stick with you and sit in your soul?
PJ: I think I’m affected by all of them but I also know that to do the job I have to do I kind of do it and move onto the next story so I can give it my full attention. Each of these stories takes so much time to create that you kind of get so deep into them that there is no way you can forget them.
BYT: Why do you think there is a bit of a true crime boom? Or is there not a boom and the information is just more accessible?
PJ: I think these are fascinating stories. These are stories that touch on things that people are attracted to because it’s often the things we know nothing about and we hope we know nothing about. These are taboo topics. You want to know more about the things you hope never happen to you so you can be prepared in some way. I think crime stories are successful because they have a narrative arc, a climax, a beginning and an end.