Turning a cold case hot: David Ridgen on a journalist's role in solving crimes

Canadian filmmaker David Ridgen, who is the creator of the CBC podcast Someone Knows Something, has thought long and hard about how a journalist can positively influence a cold case.

Ridgen is the creator of the CBC podcast Someone Knows Something

David Ridgen's work investigating unsolved murders has led police to reopen cases. (Owen Ridgen)

Adnan Syed is hoping to get out of jail. Soon. He's been there for more than 17 years, convicted of murdering his high school girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in Baltimore, Md. in 1999. 

But the conviction was recently overturned and his petition for a new trial granted. This week, his lawyers filed a motion for Syed to be released on bail as he awaits that trial.

The only reason most of us know anything about this case is because it was profiled in the podcast Serial, hosted by American reporter Sarah Koenig. The story has been downloaded nearly 100 million times.

Koenig says she gasped when she learned the conviction of Syed had been overturned by the same judge who had denied a similar motion three years earlier.

"We weren't so much shocked because of the legal arguments, but because it was such a long shot, this outcome," she wrote on the Serial site.

David Ridgen, a Canadian filmmaker and host of CBC's popular true crime podcast Someone Knows Something, has some idea what that feels like.

Ridgen's 2007 CBC TV documentary Mississippi Cold Case led to a conviction against a former Ku Klux Klansman involved in the kidnapping and murder of two black men in 1964. 

In 2012, Ridgen produced another cold case documentary, Confession to Murder, examining the 1993 disappearance of 15-year-old Christine Harron in Hanover, Ont. Anthony Edward Ringel was charged with the crime in 2004, and had even confessed to the murder. But the charges were dismissed over the inadmissibility of some evidence.

The result was that no one was held accountable for Harron's death.

Ridgen decided to investigate how a case that seemed solid could have fallen apart. After his documentary aired in 2012, police opened a second investigation that led to new charges. Earlier this month, Ringel pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Diana Swain spoke to Ridgen about his experience for this week's episode of The Investigators. Here is part of their conversation.

The Investigators with Diana Swain

The interview with Ridgen is part of a discussion on this week's episode of The Investigators that explores the challenges for journalists investigating cold cases. The Investigators airs Saturday at 9:30 p.m. ET and Sunday at 5:30 p.m. ET on CBC News Network.

The episode also includes a conversation with the CBC's Connie Walker about her podcast Who Killed Alberta Williams?, which revisits the 1989 death of a 24-year old Indigenous woman in B.C.

DS: Take me back about five years to Christine Harron, and your involvement with that. How did that start?

DR: Well, Christine's case was interesting because there had been a confession in it. Anthony Ringel had confessed to killing her, and then police had investigated, and it was thrown out of court. And basically nothing ever happened. And it was left that way, because there was a publication ban. And I wanted to look more into that. How could someone confess to a killing and then get away with it? And nothing happened. So, I got the documents, looked through them, and found out that it was police mistakes that had led to the throwing out of the case. And it was like six years later, I went up, found Anthony. I was the first and only, I think, reporter ever to speak with him.

DS: So what was it like for you, in the moment, when you saw that he was finally going to be held accountable for what he'd done?

To me, there was always a question of whether he was faking the confession.- David Ridgen on the main suspect in the murder of Christine Harron

DR: Well, it was satisfying because he had basically admitted to the exact same elements of well, I guess, the murder of Christine as he did back in 2004. So there was a consistency to me. And to me, there was always a question of whether he was faking the confession. And to me, it was an iron-clad confession. Like, he actually did it. And to me that was satisfying. And what was mostly satisfying was to see the reaction of the family. How they dealt with the loss of their child, and then participated in helping to solve the case, basically. Or at least get the case back into the police's attention.

DS: What's it like to be trying to find that line, journalistically, between "I've got to be objective" but "How do I not get pulled deeply into the emotion of this"?

DR: Well, in my experience, the more deeply I get pulled in, the better work I do, in some ways. I feel like I have to be passionate about the case. I have to be passionate about the victim, and the victim's family. But also, you have this journalistic responsibility to follow the puck in a responsible way, and to deliver a balanced version of the story. To get the subject's version… [and] the prime suspect's version of what happened. But after that, if you can immerse yourself, the passion I think drives the story to some extent. I mean, in Mississippi, where I worked on another case, and in Christine Harron's case, you're kind of part of the story as well as driving the story at the same time.

DS: Do you have to test yourself, and your own thinking about what the answer is?

DR: Always. Always, because every investigator has tunnel vision. And I'm sure you've experienced it, too. You want something to come true. It's like, "Oh, wouldn't it be great if I interviewed the guy and he actually did it, and this really makes sense because of this…" And you have this tunnel vision, and you have to pull the blinders off every single time you look at any information in the case.