true crime podcast is a place of troubled, ethically gray areas. For each rigorously studied reports of one murder mystery, there could be dozens more where amateur sleuths dabble in plagiarism(Opens in a new tab), wild speculation and unchecked conspiracy theories, all while cracking jokes or filling wine glasses. These true crime fans turned content creators might consider themselves heroes to the forgotten victims. But the slippery and sophisticated documentary Citizen detective exposes a dark underbelly to these altruistic ambitions.
The protagonist of Citizen detective is so on the nose of true crime podcasting cliches that it looks like a caricature at first. Emily Nestor, host of Kilometer post 181(Opens in a new tab) podcast, is a young white woman who projects a cool alternative with her messy bun, oversized glasses and a few tattoos, some of which were inspired by her passion for true crime. You could say she wears her love of the genre on her sleeve, but her heart tattoo wrapped in a banner that says “true crime” is actually on her leg.
She praises popular documentary shows like make a murderer And I’ll be gone in the dark, but Nestor’s passion for solving crimes was originally inspired by fictional FBI agent Clarice Starling from Thesilenceofthelambs. In this story of an underrated rural girl, Nestor saw a path to his own passion for justice. So when a bizarre death sparks rumors of murder, conspiracy, and a cover-up, Nestor saw his chance to fulfill his dream. It doesn’t matter that she has none of the training of an investigator or the limitations of a journalist: she has a microphone and a passion, and that’s enough for a podcast.
What case does Citizen detective follow?
On November 19, 2011, a 20-year-old black woman from Marietta, Ohio was found dead off Interstate 77 in West Virginia. Authorities would determine(Opens in a new tab) a car accident is the cause of death of Jaleayah Davis. But speculation has begun to swirl that the friends Davis partied with earlier that night might have a hand in his tragic end.
Curious details about the condition of Davis’ body, the placement of his clothes and the location of his car prompted Nestor to take action, launching a podcast aimed at uncovering dark truths. “I read the records,” she shares with Citizen detectivethe filmmakers. “I was like what the hell? Murder. Cover-up. This needs to be dealt with. So why not me?”
For 23 episodes, Nestor pursued the possibilities, interviewing Davis’ mother, interviewing police officers, unfolding his pet theory, and sharing his own personal stories. Citizen detective begins with Nestor as her podcast is on the rise, making her an emerging luminary at true crime conventions and podcast get-togethers.
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Citizen detective dare to get real on true crime podcasting.
Attention-hungry Nestor welcomes documentary filmmaker Chris Kasick to his home and DIY podcasting studio, which includes his wall of wires and a modest foam box to enhance the sound quality of his recording. His family warmly views his show as a worthwhile hobby and boasts of his “judgment” in pursuing this passion without a college education. However, in an effort to impress, Nestor begins leaking information about the victim that is embarrassing and unrelated to the case. This twisted version of name-dropping serves as the first red flag that this won’t be a tale of detective heroism.
As Kasick accompanies Nestor to a real crime convention, where podcasters line up for footage of them smiling with their merch and props, Citizen detective regularly moves away from the glorification of these ambitions. Amidst a sea of fame-seeking fans, a true detective Paul Holes(Opens in a new tab) — renowned for his work on the Golden State Killer case — seems a beacon of sanity. So when Nestor scores an interview with him for his podcast, where they compare notes on what they think happened to Davis, it could be a moment of victory for the Starling wannabe. Instead, this is where Citizen detective takes its decisive turn.
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Citizen detective is boldly disturbing.
In the third act, Nestor fell into a problematic trap of true crime: exploitation. His quest for the truth yielded impractical answers. Telling them could risk ending her podcast, which would also mean the end of sponsorship deals that allowed her to step away from being the waitress, not to mention her new idol role for a growing and demanding fandom. The documentary crew press her on the ethical dilemma while addressing their own budding concerns, as a revelation from Holes also throws their project into question.
The tension of the final act of Citizen detective not only comes to worry about what Nestor is going to do, but also wonders how having her on camera affects his decision. With the cameras in her face, does she feel pressured to perform? Is this what triggers a wave of (white woman) tears when asked about benefiting from the violent death of a black woman? Or does the editing that eludes her push her to a ruthless self-assessment? And within these montages, the viewer might well wonder what debates the filmmakers had in directing – or even continuing – their project after the revelation of particularly damning information.
Some of the most memorable moments of Citizen detective are when Kasick walks past Nestor and interrogates his suspects, people who (understandably) never agreed to be on his podcast. In these interviews, a sobering slap hits the giddy thrill of true-crime amateurs. While the documentary focuses on Nestor — and certainly does her a few favors — that doesn’t mean she’s an exception in this burgeoning industry. During the end credits, true crime podcasters chatter away in a cacophonous audio montage, urging the audience to think critically about their next listen.
Fascinating and annoying because without compromise, Citizen detective is a must-have for true crime fans.
Citizen detective was seen again in its world premiere at SXSW 2023.