The makers of Small Town, Big Crime are still on the case and released a video to Patreon supporters in which they explain where the show is going and respond to viewers’ questions.
For me, the most interesting question is the last one beginning at about 13:20, in which a listener asks why the American media, in particular, appeared so “anxious” to endorse Soering’s claims.
Courteney Stuart responds. First, regular news reporters work on deadlines and don’t have the time to do extensive background investigation, something podcasts allow. Second, Soering’s supporters had “solid” reputations, and some were known to her and the other STBC journalists for decades. Rachel Ryan points out that Soering had a sitting sheriff and a co-founder of the Innocence Project ready and willing to give interviews at any time. Meanwhile, Bedford County simply failed to respond to the “regular public statements” from Soering’s side and most of the actors refused to give interviews.
I think this nails it. Soering had excellent lawyers and good luck on his side: His lawyers kept reaching out for support, and managed to attract high-quality, prominent supporters in the mid-2010s by means of a reputational snowball effect. As I noted before, it seems like Chip Harding was one of the first external (i.e. not part the legal team) Soering supporters, and he used his reputation as an experienced law enforcement officer and criminal-justice reform advocate to haul others into the boat. If Chip Harding says this guy didn’t get a fair trial, who are you to question him? And then if Jason Flom, John Grisham, and prominent professors jump in, who are mere mortals to question them? What’s the chance, a reporter could legitimately ask herself, that all of these smart, sincere, knowledgeable people got hoodwinked?
As we’ve seen, they did get hoodwinked. And they did so because they relied on each others’ reputations (“Jason/Chip/John’s a great guy, he wouldn’t lead me astray!”), instead of careful, independent research. And the snowball effect built up as Soering’s claims were broadcast to an audience of tens of thousands. This was what was once so frustrating about following this case: Harding, Flom, or some other supporter would go on a podcast or TV show and make claims which we Soering skeptics knew were false or grossly misleading (we’ll charitably assume they did so unknowingly), with no pushback whatsoever. As Mark Twain didn’t say, a lie can fly across the world while the truth is still getting its boots on.
The strategy used by Bedford County and some Soering skeptics also didn’t help. I understand the position of Gardner and other Bedford County people, which is common among law enforcement: “This case is over and done with. Courts have reviewed it over and over. There’s no point in re-litigating the issue now, especially after decades have passed. What’s the point of having a legal system which generates final criminal convictions if nobody takes them seriously?” Ricky Gardner, Jim Updike, and other law enforcement people have much better things to do than defend their conduct in a 35-year-old case. Plus, it’s frustrating to be continuously confronted by the same ill-informed questions.
Yet while they remained silent, the Soering media juggernaut took shape. Bedford County could and should have stood up for themselves more. For instance, they could have put together perhaps a punchy 5-page summary of the most compelling evidence against Soering and the biggest problems with his claims. Instead, they made it look as if they were defensive, or hiding something. You can’t win a debate you don’t even enter.
And pushback would have helped. I have so far spoken to dozens of journalists about the Soering case, and most have been interested and receptive. Many decided to abandon pro-Soering pieces, or at least present the contrary view fairly. Some journalists will cover their ears when you present them with information which undermines their initial assumptions, but most are actually interested in the truth. Ultimately, I think this podcast is going to end up more or less like the legendary first season of “Serial”, in which the podcasters pursued every lead which could possibly have helped Adnan Syed, but ended up finding nothing which cast real doubt on his conviction. Syed is still in prison, where he belongs.
But who knows? The podcasters are still at it, despite Covid, and have promised new episodes and new information. They say in passing that they’ve been to Bedford County to inspect the trial evidence, so perhaps they’re going to have a go at new DNA tests. Stay tuned, and support them on Patreon!