Experts weigh in on a public obsession

Mar. 16—Nov. 14, 1959. Holcomb, Kansas.

For many, it was a typical day.

But for Herb Clutter, along with his wife Bonnie and children Nancy and Kenyon, it was the last day of their lives.

Within hours, all four were shot and killed, leaving behind a massive manhunt for whoever committed the act and why.

A month later, two men named Perry Smith and Dick Hickok were arrested in connection with the incident.

They were later convicted and sentenced to death, ultimately executed on April 14, 1965.

The following year, American novelist Truman Capote published a book about the 1959 incident and the events that transpired afterward.

He titled the book "In Cold Blood," and some claim it to be the first novel in what has since been dubbed the public's fascination with the "true crime" genre.

And these days, that fascination is everywhere.

From Netflix shows like "Making a Murderer" and "American Nightmare" to podcasts like "Serial," the genre has seemingly exploded in recent years.

According to a 2022 survey conducted by the national marketing and research group YouGov, around half of all Americans say they enjoy following true crime, with roughly 35% who say they watch its content at least once a week.

So where does a case like Delphi fit into all that?

It's been seven years since teenagers Libby German and Abby Williams went for a hike on the Monon High Bridge area on the outskirts of Delphi and were later found dead.

And over those seven years, the case, along with the eventual arrest and court proceedings of accused Delphi suspect Richard Allen, has garnered worldwide attention.

There have already been books written about the case, as well as several podcasts and documentaries.

The families have appeared on the Dr. Phil television program, and national commentator Nancy Grace has dedicated numerous shows to the topic.

But why?

The Tribune went searching recently for answers to that question.

And according to some experts, the answer isn't exactly as clear-cut as you might think.


Dr. Kathryn Holcomb is an associate professor of psychology at Indiana University Kokomo, and she admitted she has been hit or miss in terms of keeping up with all the details of the Delphi case.

But she did acknowledge the public's interest in the case, adding those who seem to be following it are the same type of people who tend to gravitate toward following other true crime stories as well.

"There's some statistics behind this," she said. "It tends to be more women than men, and it seems that people might be trying to understand ... to perhaps learn how to protect themselves. It's kind of like a, 'What did they do, and what can I do to protect myself if that would happen to me?'

"I think human beings are also drawn to things that are negative and things that are out of the ordinary," Holcomb added. "And it's sort of clear-cut in true crime. It's black and white. There's a good guy and a bad guy, so to speak. And the way true crime is presented sometimes, it's easy to know who to root for. Lastly, I just think people like solving puzzles, to be honest."

But not every crime case gets the national attention that Delphi has received, Holcomb admitted.

She attributes that to the actual nature of the crime itself, the ages of the girls, the ability for people to believe in overall "justice" in the case and the attempts from those involved in keeping the case in the public eye.

Holcomb also said the media has a part to play in it too, though she added the media isn't solely the reason for society's fascination with true crime.

"If people aren't watching this show or that case, the media wouldn't be putting it out there," she said. "So they're sort of feeding each other. Media has always kind of been the, 'If it bleeds, it leads,' but that was when people were solely watching just the local news, right? Now there is so much more out there."

Holcomb is referring to the advancements in social media, where individuals can find a voice and a like-minded audience.

"If that (true crime) is your interest, you can kind of pick up on those aspects or join those groups or follow people who produce that content," she said. "So you just sort of see more of it out there. Everyone seems to have an opinion on something, and they want an avenue to share it. So a way people get that social connection with people is through discussing cases like this online."

But over-sharing can sometimes hinder a case, Holcomb acknowledged, and it can also inadvertently breed conspiracies and conspiracy theorists.

That speculation can also ultimately taint a jury pool, she added.

"Take Delphi, for example," she said. "Because this has gotten so much publicity, I can't imagine that there is anyone in Indiana that hasn't heard about this case, right? And there's a lot of research to show that the more press coverage people have seen of a case, the more they start to get ideas about it."

And once those people start to form opinions, Holcomb noted, it's difficult to break away from them.

"It's called confirmation bias," she said. "And once that confirmation bias sort of occurs, you're going to start to see things that agree with what you suspect, rather than being able to listen to everything in a more open-minded way. You can do it, of course, but it gets harder."

So that dives into the question of whether a defendant in a highly publicized case can receive a fair trial.

"Yeah, I'll be honest, I don't know how they do," Holcomb noted. "I think it's really hard, and you have to hope that the attorneys in the voir dire (jury selection process) can find people who are willing to be open-minded. But I think it would be hard to pick a jury in a case like this just because of the many layers involved there."

New York-based attorney John Wallenstein, who's seen the effects of the public's fascination with true crime firsthand, agreed.


Wallenstein has been on both sides of the aisle when it comes to his lengthy law career.

He worked for four years as a prosecutor in Queens County, New York, in the 1970s before he switched to private practice in criminal defense in the 1980s.

But it was the case he represented in the 1990s that he said a lot of people around America might have heard of.

Between 1990 and 1993, a man named Heriberto Seda fatally shot three people and wounded six others in the New York City borough of Brooklyn.

Seda was eventually arrested and convicted, and he was ultimately handed down a sentence of 232 years in prison.

The case — both before and after Seda's arrest — made national headlines, with some dubbing Seda "The Brooklyn Sniper" and "The New York Zodiac Killer," a play-on words to the notorious "Zodiac Killer" of the 1960s, who Seda admitted he likened himself to.

Wallenstein became part of Seda's legal team in the mid-1990s.

"It was a circumstantial case for the most part," Wallenstein told the Tribune earlier this month via telephone. "But it was a difficult case because of the publicity. There was no way that the detective who arrested him was going to say, with all the brass and press standing there, that they got the wrong guy. That was the theme throughout the case. Failure for them was not an option."

Wallenstein, like Holcomb, also noted it's often the media that feeds the public's fascination with true crime.

"When an arrest is made, it's on the front page," he said. "When someone's found not guilty, or charges are dismissed because it fell apart, it's on page 72, bottom left-hand corner, where nobody sees it. When there's so much publicity on cases that, first the local cable station picks it up, and then ABC, NBC and CBS runs it nationwide, that's on the press.

"That's the press making it sensational," he added, "certainly not the participants. Those of us involved, we try our cases in the courtroom, not in the press. At least I do. But it's a lot of times that the press turns it into a circus, and people then run with it."

So then it just becomes a continuous cycle, both Wallenstein and Holcomb said, between the media's potential desire for eyeballs and the public's desire for the "dangling carrot."

And that's how that fascination with true crime can come at a price for those who invest their emotional and physical energy into it, they noted.

"My suspicion is that if you follow true crime closely, I could see where it'd cause you to be a lot more paranoid," Holcomb said. "I think it probably also makes people feel like the world is a lot more dangerous place than it actually is.

"So I think the thing we have to continue to stress is that even though these types of cases are well-publicized," she added, "they'll also still fairly rare when you look at the big picture. I think sometimes we get so wrapped up in the genre of true crime that we forget the world in front of us. And that right there is often the real danger."