today’s true crime resurgence has an antecedent in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Russian author of numerous novels about murder including, most famously, “Crime and Punishment.” Dostoyevsky was obsessed with the judiciary. He spent considerable time watching trials, debating with lawyers about the nature of innocence and guilt, visiting the accused in prison and trying to sway public opinion about certain cases.
.. Unlike contemporary consumers of true crime, who find themselves in the middle of a larger national conversation about police brutality and racial bias in sentencing, Dostoyevsky was writing at a time of tremendous enthusiasm and hope regarding the future of Russian jurisprudence. In 1864, Czar Alexander II instituted sweeping changes to the legal code, the most radical of which was the introduction of the jury trial. Dostoyevsky shared the country’s excitement over the changes, writing to a friend: “We will have just courts everywhere. What a great regeneration that will be!
.. Dostoyevsky himself had been victim to an overzealous judicial system. In 1849, he was sentenced to death for participating in the Petrashevsky Circle, an intellectual society influenced by the French utopian socialists.
.. he began to have serious doubts about the courts. For one, Russian juries produced an unusually high number of acquittals (about 40 percent in all cases).
.. Where was the space, he wondered, to properly attend to the moral regeneration of those who had committed acts of violence?
.. Dostoyevsky ultimately wanted people to feel more at ease with the concept of guilt, to embrace it as a feature of common humanity and to recognize our own complicity in the everyday acts of violence (cruelty, lack of love, stinginess) that drive people to moral transgressions.
.. He devoted his final novel, “The Brothers Karamazov,” to developing the idea of “collective guilt.” At the book’s center is the murder of Fyodor Karamazov, a derelict father who was violent, abusive and selfish, leading all his sons to, consciously or subconsciously, desire his demise.
.. Though ultimately killed by his illegitimate son, the other children all come to accept their own culpability in the steps that led to their father’s murder.
.. As true crime shows continue to proliferate today, Dostoyevsky’s evolution as a crime writer could prove instructive in expanding the genre’s reformist potential.
.. equal attention should be paid to stories of restorative justice, like that exemplified by podcasts like “Ear Hustle,” which is produced by inmates in San Quentin State Prison in California.
.. it is not only our task to support the innocent or wrongly convicted but also to recognize the humanity of the guilty and the shared sense of responsibility that we have for one another.