Murder in Illinois: Half of a story

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If you’ve never listened to the audio of a crime scene reconstruction, you’ve no idea what excruciating really feels like. Yet the reexamination of the physical evidence from the 2007 Chris Vaughn murders is far from the only agonizing element of Murder in Illinois. This is a podcast that presents as a (reasonably) impartial reconsideration of the facts of the case but — in reality — is a thinly veiled and biased exercise in proving Vaughn’s innocence.

Now let’s be clear, I have no opinion on whether Vaughn is innocent or not. This is the first I’ve ever heard of the case. What irks is that this extensive and detailed murder podcast sneakily refrains from ever laying its cards on the table.

Reporter Lauren Bright Pacheco and her team fail to tell listeners the truth — that Murder in Illinois never intends to present a balanced case and let them make their own minds up. Rather its narrators, witnesses, evidence and all journalistic effort is hell bent on exonerating Vaughn.

Once you know that, it’s probably easier to enjoy.

As it stands, Chris Vaughn is accused of shooting his wife and three children dead during a family trip. There are no witnesses and Vaughn — who claimed to have absolutely no memory of the incident — was convicted and remains in prison with a suitably lengthy sentence. His parents, somewhat predictably, plead his innocence, as do lawyers associated with their defense team. The early stages of the story involves Pacheco picking up on their reasons and milking them for all they’re worth before the ultimate bombshell: Chris Vaughn suddenly reveals that he remembers all of the details and has been concealing them for 14 years out of some ambiguous kind nobility. Hmm.

The truth (they would have you believe): his wife murdered the children and shot herself as part of a murder-suicide.

No mention is given to the fact that Vaughn has had 14 empty years to cook up a story that matches the physical evidence and explains away any discrepancies. Instead, we’re encouraged to take his word at face value, which ultimately leads us to the painful audio experience of listening to “crime scene experts” puffed up on confirmation bias desperately coaxing actors to behave as suits their story.

Vaughn’s wife Kimberley would have struggled to avoid being shot in the chin, they insist. Oh really? What about cases where a gunman toys with a victim and they freeze with terror? This conjecture is surely just as valid as theirs…

I don’t know how hosts like Pacheco stumble upon these stories. Whether they’re approached by the family or some other advocacy organization for help, but such flagrant bias needs to be fully explained to an audience. At the end of the day, podcasts that prove innocence are popular and often fascinating. What isn’t fun is twelve episodes of an almost entirely one-sided argument that doesn’t really test itself or bend to challenge or criticism.

In conclusion, Pacheco makes the broader argument about the proliferation of wrongful convictions. And while this is undoubtedly an important issue, on the strength of this podcast she singularly fails to convince that the Vaughn case deserves to be reconsidered as part of that category.

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