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What Do True-Crime Shows Owe Victims and Survivors?

By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

Psychologists say one of the reasons people love watching true-crime shows is because they remind them that their own lives could be worse.

Right now, Netflix lists about 40 original shoes on its true-crime page, including horrible tales of monstrous people and their victims.

People consider themselves fortunate that they are not the victims of horrible crimes, of course. But they're also happy that they don't have to deal with the pain of being a victim's survivor.

Survivors' pain is no doubt magnified when the traumatic events they experienced are on TV for all the world to see. All we need to do is look at the backlash that has followed the September release of "Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story."

Dahmer was one of the most notorious serial killers in history, killing at least 17 men and sometimes cannibalizing them. He went to prison in 1992 to serve 15 life sentences for 15 of the deaths and died two years later when a fellow inmate beat him to death in a bathroom.

More Trauma for Survivors

"Monster" is a 10-part series that has gotten pretty good reviews (62% of critics and 84% of audience viewers give it a thumbs-up on Rotten Tomatoes), but it's also prompted strong criticism for its portrayal of the victims. Those victims' survivors say the show has retraumatized them.

The show depicted one of the survivors losing control with an emotional outburst as she gave a statement in court about the murder of her brother. That survivor, Rita Isbell, responded to the show and her depiction by saying it "brought back all the emotions I was feeling back then."

"I was never contacted about the show," she said. "I feel like Netflix should've asked if we mind or how we felt about making it. They didn't ask me anything. They just did it."

So, is that legal? Can Netflix, or any production company, just ignore survivors of traumatic horror?

The answer, maybe surprisingly, is yes — as long as the depictions are taken from the public record. No one owns facts.

"The only obligation Netflix has to victims is to be accurate and factual and not to use anything about the victims that may be protected by privacy laws," says Tre Lovell, managing attorney at the Lovell Law Firm in Los Angeles.

In the case of Dahmer or Ted Bundy, another notorious serial killer who was the subject of a Netflix show, the public record is large. But what about shows focusing on cases with minimal public records?

Producers who make shows of that sort run greater legal risks. Rachel DeLoache Williams, a photo editor who befriended socialite and swindler Anna Sorokin, sued Netflix for defamation in August over her portrayal in the popular show, "Inventing Anna."

In her complaint, Williams accused Netflix of making a "deliberate decision for dramatic purposes" to depict her "as a greedy, snobbish, disloyal, dishonest, cowardly, manipulative and opportunistic person."

A Call for Greater Sensitivity

For survivors of Dahmer's and Bundy's victims who lack legal recourse, the best they can do is raise the issue. For Netflix and other production companies, the survivors' outcry on social media points out that there are ethical issues when they make shows about human monsters.

True crime is a moneymaker for them; these shows will continue to be made. But maybe they could be made with greater recognition that the survivors deserve a voice – or at least a notification.

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