EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Cream City Chronicles: My Take on Episode One of the Unsolved Podcast

“I always want to do stories that are going to in some way be helpful to people who have survived a crime like this.” Gina Barton, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Yesterday, we premiered the final episode of the first season of the Undisclosed Podcast (we will drop a bonus episode on January 4th). In some ways, it was a relief. On the other hand, I couldn't help but feel a bit overcome by emotion as I listened to the last few minutes of the episode. This was compounded by the fact that Adnan's brother Yusuf reported on Adnan's health issues in prison yesterday.*

After the episode, I was finally able to listen to the first episode of the Unsolved Podcast, and I was immediately struck by some of the parallels to Adnan's case, including a high school student who goes missing from school, his body stumbled upon in a park in February after intervening snow, high school wrestling, and different jurisdictions covering the missing persons and homicide cases.


And then, there's the impact upon the family. As its name implies, the Unsolved Podcast is a deep dive into the unsolved 1976 death and disappearance of fourteen year-old John Zera in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It is narrated by Gina Barton, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's law enforcement investigative reporter.

In this case, however, Barton has something that she hasn't had in her decades of experience: the enire case file, all 6,000 odd pages of it. She also has interviews with John's brother, Mark, who says that his brother's death is still so hard on him.

This makes sense on a few levels. When they started investigating the case,

The only thing the police knew for certain was that after lunch on Friday, Feb. 20, John got a pass, walked out of study hall and vanished.

It was Mark who first realized something was wrong when he arrived home from wrestling practice, and John wasn't there. Barton has an article accompanying each of her episodes, and in the first one, she notes that

The police questioned John's older brother repeatedly — at least once in a tiny room down at the station, with his father on the other side of the heavy door. Mark spoke in a monotone, his curt replies peppered with "I don't know" and shoulder shrugs.


"He knows what happened," one of the detectives told Mark's parents. "He's hiding something."


But Mark didn't know anything. He wished he did. He would never put his parents through this suffering.

Mark wasn't alone. As in so many of these case, it seems like the Rashomon effect was in full effect: 

Officers collected conflicting accounts about where and when [John] was last seen: He headed for the parking lot and a waiting Ford Torino. He wandered through the school lobby but didn't go outside. He lingered in the hallway near his drafting classroom but never went in.

I'm only one episode into the podcast, but I can already tell that we're in capable hands with Barton, and it seems like the case will have more twists than a bag of pretzels. Barton has said that she was inspired to create the podcast by Serial and Bill Rankin's excellent Breakdown Podcast. 

I love the trend of journalists digging deeper into true crime stories. For decades, I've always felt like crime journalism was hindered by the limitations of the medium, and it seems like the podcast format allows for more complete and comprehensive reporting. Unsolved certainly falls into the category, and I'd strongly recommend it to listeners of Undisclosed. As I fit in episodes in between exam grading, I'll continue to do posts about the podcast.


*We have some outstanding listener questions that I will be addressing on my blog in the coming weeks, including one about Supermax prisons, such as the one where Adnan is incarcerated. 



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As a Canadian far removed from Wisconsin (and someone who sadly lacks any skill with a guitar), I had to search online to understand the “Cream City” reference. I’m wiser now for doing so. It was your Twitter post that alerted me to Unsolved. I’m grateful for that, too. It’s worth following. And I agree that journalists digging deeper into stories via podcasts is a welcome trend. I hope more follow.

Finally, thank you for all your work on Undisclosed. Let’s hope that your team efforts see results early in 2016 (and that Adnan and others in similar circumstances receive prompt attention to health concerns when they need it).

Posted by: streetwriter | Dec 22, 2015 6:45:40 AM

As a Milwaukeean who's been keeping up with the Unsolved series (and who's a big fan of Undisclosed, Serial, Truth & Justice, etc. and saw many parallels in the stories), I'm extremely glad you mentioned it here! Thank you...

Posted by: Colleen | Dec 22, 2015 12:23:51 PM

Those who would like to respond to Yusuf Syed's plea for proper medical care for Adnan can email the office of Maryland governor Larry Hogan at:


Governor Hogan has just successfully come through cancer treatment and has every reason to be compassionate regarding Adnan’s medical care.

Posted by: Bev | Dec 23, 2015 4:58:48 AM

I know you are just trying to ease the pain of the end of Season 1 of Undisclosed but I'll give it a try and see if it will hold me until you are back! I almost feel that my three close friends are going on vacation without me and I will really miss our weekly coffee breaks. Thank you for all you do - for Adnan and for your students. You are making a big difference in the world and hopefully your students will be the best lawyers they can be.

Posted by: Desire Dunn | Dec 23, 2015 8:57:12 AM

streetwriter: Thanks.

Colleen: Thanks. I’m looking forward to learning more about Milwaukee through the podcast.

Bev: Thanks.

Desire: Thanks. Unsolved is definitely a great listen.

Posted by: Colin | Dec 23, 2015 11:34:37 AM

I am pretty shocked. Surely preventing Adnan from seeing a doctor over what seems to be a serious matter constitutes a human rights violation?

Posted by: anonynon | Dec 28, 2015 8:04:30 PM

I'm glad to hear you approve of the podcast. Since Undisclosed ended, I've been looking for other podcasts to follow and wanted your input of what was worth the time. Any other suggestions besides Unsolved (which I plan on starting this afternoon)?

Posted by: eeg | Jan 7, 2016 6:48:44 AM

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