Their names were Hae Min Lee and Teresa Halbach. Hae was newly 18 when she was strangled to death in Baltimore in January 1999. Teresa was 25 when she was murdered in October 2005. Two young women whose murders resulted in trials with controversial results, and later, the first podcast to be downloaded 5 million times and what Forbes contributor Paul Tassi described as “Netflix’s most significant show ever”.
The podcast Serial and the Netflix documentary series Making A Murderer gave rise to armchair investigators; part-time sleuths, scattered across the globe, analysing Google results and cross-examining their friends on who they think did it.
Adnan Syed, Hae’s ex-boyfriend, who was found guilty of her murder at the time, is back in the public spotlight after commencing proceedings that may lead to a new trial. Dean Strang and Jerome Buting, Steven Avery’s defence attorneys during his trial for the murder of Teresa, have been amassed a cult following with Making A Murderer’s audience and have since been turned into internet memes.
What I fear has been lost in this trend towards consuming real criminal investigations as episodes of SVU, is the victims’ humanity.
Hae’s family released a statement last month regarding the hearings, saying, “It remains hard to see so many run to defend someone who committed a horrible crime, who destroyed our family, who refuses to accept responsibility, when so few are willing to speak up for Hae.”
Regardless of your personal opinion on Syed’s guilt, it must be torturous for Hae’s family to see the man they believe was correctly convicted of their daughter’s murder elevated to celebrity status, while the details of Hae’s life are forgotten. Similarly, journalists who knew Teresa Halbach have written about the imbalance in the coverage of her murder. In the words of Medium’s Diana Alvear, “Teresa deserved more than the mere minutes they gave her on screen.”
The internet has been flooded with information about Syed and Avery, yet
Googling “Teresa Halbach” only locates an obituary on the eighth page of results. These women have been relegated to background roles in the stories of their own murders, while the men accused of the violent crimes have become household names. But they are more than the horrible things that were done to them.
Hae Min Lee was a member of the French club, an honour student who played lacrosse and field hockey.
Teresa Halbach had graduated summa cum laude in photography, and loved karaoke and travelling.
Interrogating miscarriages of justice is important, particularly in a country like the United States, which has the highest incarceration rate in the world, but focusing on individual cases means we are losing sight of the broader context. The success of Serial and Making A Murderer has not, for example, increased awareness of the obvious rac- ism in the U.S. justice system that means young black men are six times more likely to be incarcerated than their white counterparts. Uncovering the truth in the Syed or Avery cases benefits the indi- viduals directly involved, but if the response stops there, the root issues remain unaddressed.
With so many victims of fatal violence, it is impossible for the media to focus in great detail on every victim. However, in cases like Hae and Teresa’s, whose deaths have become popular media, it is not unreasonable to want the media to remember the women who died so the public could enjoy a true crime documentary.
While I don’t think turning Hae or Teresa into memes is the answer, I do wish more people would remember that at the heart of these sensationalised, ratings-driven dramas young women were murdered and their lives were cut tragically short. There is no doubting their innocence.