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When One Podcast Picks Up Where Another Leaves Off

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

It’s not often you get a chance to explore the full story behind a curious detail. The Coldest Case in Laramie, from February, was a tautly constructed piece on the unsolved 1985 killing of a Wyoming woman named Shelli Wiley. That cold case was abundant with contemporary intrigue and peculiar detail; one particularly prominent example comes in the fifth episode, which attends to a stretch in the case when a man named Jacob Wideman — a Laramie native who also happens to be the son of the PEN/Faulkner Award–winning writer John Wideman — suddenly confessed to the murder while incarcerated in Arizona for an unrelated murder. It turned out to be a false confession, driven by Jacob Wideman’s attempt to get the death penalty and thus commit suicide by proxy. A dark and strange detail in a dark and strange story. When that detail comes within the context of Laramie, the effect is dislocating. That podcast would swiftly move on to another narrative thread, but the quick detour left me wondering, What was going on with that guy?

Turns out, there’s an astonishingly well-timed new podcast series that answers the question. WBUR and the Marshall Project recently rolled out Violation, a seven-part series that specifically grapples with the story of Jacob Wideman, currently incarcerated for an unthinkable act committed as a teenager. While on a summer camp trip in 1986, he fatally stabbed his bunkmate, Eric Kane, with seemingly little exterior motive. A brief manhunt transpired, after which Wideman surrendered to the authorities and was eventually sentenced to 25 years to life. As noted in Laramie, Wideman’s action appeared to be the result of an assortment of conditions, including “Schizotypal personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, atypical conduct disorder, and eventually, temporal lobe syndrome.”

Hosted by Beth Schwartzapfel and produced by Quincy Walters, Violation takes quite a bit of time getting to the heart of its project. The series spends the opening episodes establishing the story around Wideman’s murder of Kane, and nods toward why it’s attained a sheen of sensationalism: Jacob’s father, John Wideman, was the author of Brothers and Keepers, a memoir published in 1984 that meditates on the fate of his own brother, Robby, who’s also serving a life sentence for murder.

But it becomes rapidly apparent that Violation is interested in a specific aspect of the story, which is the unusual complications surrounding Jacob Wideman’s possibility for parole. He was eventually released in 2016 on home arrest after 30 years in prison, only to be dragged back in nine months later under unusual circumstances. Violation, ultimately, isn’t a whodunit or whydunit or anything genre-laden like that. Rather, as one would expect from a series by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit newsroom, this is a piece about the nature of parole hearings, who gets to determine the threshold for rehabilitation, the overlapping factors at play in the process, and how it reflects an American criminal-justice system that has yet to develop a substantial imagination for any alternative beyond incarceration.

“Jake’s case sort of encapsulates the kinds of stories we’re drawn to at the Marshall Project,” said the Boston-based Schwartzapfel when we spoke over the phone earlier this week. “We tend to write about the cases that are not so cut and dried. If somebody’s innocent, they should get out of prison, and there are lots of reasons that they don’t, and there are lots of scholars who write about why that is. But the thornier question — and in a way, a more important question if we’re serious about addressing mass incarceration — is what do we do with the people who aren’t innocent?”

Schwartzapfel found her way to this story through Brothers and Keepers, of which she’s an admirer. “It was way before its time,” she said. “I was really moved by [John Wideman’s] project of trying to make us understand where somebody’s coming from that might land them in that situation.” Schwartzapfel only learned about Jacob after the fact, which added a striking layer to the legacy surrounding the book, and in 2008, she approached John Wideman at a book reading and asked if he would be interested in speaking to a reporter about that line between his brother and his son. “He was very gracious and friendly, but he never got back to me,” she recalled. It wasn’t until years later, when she was covering parole boards for the Marshall Project, that Jacob’s story came back to her when a source in Massachusetts approached her with information about the strange story. As it turns out, the source had been Jacob’s attorney for the past three decades.

According to Schwartzapfel, the near-simultaneous arrival of The Coldest Case in Laramie came as a slight surprise. She and the team at the Marshall Project had been in the early stages of developing Violation when word came in that Laramie host Kim Barker was speaking with Jacob. There was some mild worry about being scooped, but it quickly became apparent that the two projects pursued different goals. “It was clear very early on that their conversations with Jacob were laser-focused on the Shelli Wiley case,” she said. “And you know what? In the end, hearing the series, it was actually super helpful, because we didn’t spend very much time on that part of the story. We wouldn’t have regardless. But now it’s, like, you wanna know more about that? Listen to the Coldest Case in Laramie. They don’t take away from each other.”

A thing I was curious enough to ask Schwartzapfel: The Marshall Project is fairly well-established as a publisher of long-form written journalism, so why produce this as a podcast and run the risk of being lumped in with the schlockier true-crime products that heavily populate the podcast charts?

“Yeah, I get that,” she said. “True crime can be, for a lack of better word, pretty gross and prurient and sensationalistic and all that. We certainly didn’t want to be any of those things, but at the same time, there is the strong possibility of drawing in people who have an interest in that kind of thing. So the hope is that we keep them long enough to get them to think a little more about the criminal-justice system, why we lock people up, and what our goal is.”

The third episode of Violation is out this week.

One more thing …

Schwartzapfel is a prolific podcast consumer, by the way. Here are a few things she recommends:

➽ You Didn’t See Nothin: “I listened to it over the weekend, and it just made my head explode. Have you heard that one? Holy shit. It was so good.”

➽ Bone Valley: “Gilbert King is a friend of the Marshall Project, and in fact, I think his book” — Devil in the Grove — “was what inspired the founding of the Marshall Project, and he did an amazing job with the podcast.”

➽ In the Dark season one: “You know what? The first season of In The Dark, the one about Jacob Wetterling, in my opinion, did not get enough attention. It did that thing where it didn’t just investigate a single case and a single tragedy, but got at the structure of what the hell happened, how that whole thing was a shitshow that didn’t need to happen.”

More Podcast News

➽ One imagines that the Trump indictment is going to revive an old podcast subgenre … or maybe a new generation of news podcasts?

➽ Another likely entry to the “Cool Girl Podcast” canon we’re trying to build out here: Sanctum Unmasked, which purports to go over the history and backstory of SNCTM, “the most elite sex club in the world” that was, of course, located in Hollywood. It’s hosted by the sex columnist Karley Sciortino, it comes out tomorrow, and you’ll probably like it if you liked HeidiworldEyes Wide Shut, and debaucherous wealth.

➽ The bicoastal elite podcast How Long Gone, whose cultural expertise was recently cited in The New Yorker on the subject of Gwyneth Paltrow’s recent legal adventures a.k.a. The Greatest Ski Trial of All Time, recently struck a marketing and ad sales deal with Talkhouse, purveyor of such fine shows like Bjork: Sonic Symbolism and Jokermen. Frankly, a match made in heaven.

➽ I can’t say enough good things about the MUBI Podcast, which, yes, is a branded project, but one that nevertheless directs its resources into producing some truly interesting audio documentaries about films. The latest season, all about iconic needle-drops in movies, is out now, kicking off with an episode about the use of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (Remind me, when will Greta Gerwig’s Barbie come out again?) Rico Gagliano, once again, leads the project.

➽ In case you missed it: NPR canceled four podcasts amid a wider layoff, I wrote about it here. Relatedly, Bloomberg reported on what seemed to be an especially tense town hall meeting that took place in the aftermath. Elsewhere, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo served up another snapshot of the Current State of Pods.

When One Podcast Picks Up Where Another Leaves Off