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'The Coldest Case' is Serial's latest podcast on murder and memory

Serial's new true-crime podcast, <em>The Coldest Case in</em> Laramie, revisits a 1985 murder<em>. </em>Above, storm clouds over downtown Laramie, Wyo., on Aug. 13, 2022.
Patrick T. Fallon
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AFP via Getty Images
Serial's new true-crime podcast, The Coldest Case in Laramie, revisits a 1985 murder. Above, storm clouds over downtown Laramie, Wyo., on Aug. 13, 2022.

In Kim Barker's memory, the city of Laramie, Wyo. — where she spent some years as a teenager — was a miserable place. A seasoned journalist with The New York Times, Barker is now also the host of The Coldest Case in Laramie, a new audio documentary series from Serial Productions that brings her back into the jagged edges of her former home.

The cold case in question took place almost four decades ago. In 1985, Shelli Wiley, a University of Wyoming student, was brutally killed in her apartment, which was also set ablaze. The ensuing police investigation brought nothing definite. Two separate arrests were eventually made for the crime, but neither stuck. And so, for a long time, the case was left to freeze.

At the time of the murder, Barker was a kid in Laramie. The case had stuck with her: its brutality, its open-endedness. Decades later, while waylaid by the pandemic, she found herself checking back on the murder — only to find a fresh development.

In 2016, a former police officer, who had lived nearby Wiley's apartment, was arrested for the murder on the basis of blood evidence linking him to the scene. As it turned out, many in the area had long harbored suspicions that he was the culprit. This felt like a definite resolution. But that lead went nowhere as well. Shortly after the arrest, the charges against him were surprisingly dropped, and no new charges have been filed since.

What, exactly, is going on here? This is where Barker enters the scene.

The Coldest Case in Laramie isn't quite a conventional true crime story. It certainly doesn't want to be; even the creators explicitly insist the podcast is not "a case of whodunit." Instead, the show is best described as an extensive accounting of what happens when the confusion around a horrific crime meets a gravitational pull for closure. It's a mess.

At the heart of The Coldest Case in Laramie is an interest in the unreliability of memory and the slipperiness of truth. One of the podcast's more striking moments revolves around a woman who had been living with the victim at the time. The woman had a memory of being sent a letter with a bunch of money and a warning to skip town not long after the murder. The message had seared into her brain for decades, but, as revealed through Barker's reporting, few things about that memory are what they seem. Barker later presents the woman with pieces of evidence that radically challenge her core memory, and you can almost hear a mind change.

We're currently neck-deep in a documentary boom so utterly dominated by true crime stories that we're pretty much well past the point of saturation. At this point, these themes of unreliable memory and subjective truths feel like they should be starting points for a story like this.

The Coldest Case in Laramie is undeniably compelling, but there's also something about the show's underlying themes that feels oddly commonplace. We're currently neck-deep in a documentary boom so utterly dominated by true crime stories that we're pretty much well past the point of saturation. At this point, these themes of unreliable memory and subjective truths feel like they should be starting points for a story like this. And given the pedigree of Serial Productions, responsible for seminal projects like S-Town, Nice White Parents — and, you know, Serial — it's hard not to feel accustomed to expecting something more; a bigger, newer idea on which to hang this story.

Of course, none of this is to undercut the reporting as well as the still very much important ideas driving the podcast. It will always be terrifying how our justice system depends so much on something as capricious as memory, and how different people might look at the same piece of information only to arrive at completely different conclusions. By the end of the series, even Barker begins to reconsider how she remembers the Laramie where she grew up. But the increasing expected nature of these themes in nonfiction crime narratives start to beg the question: Where do we go from here?

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Nick Quah