In the Dark is a podcast series produced by America Public Media (APM) that takes an in-depth look at the 1989 abduction and murder of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in St. Joseph, Minnesota. The podcast series’ first season features nine episodes where investigative reporter, Madeleine Baran, deconstructs the forensic practices in Jacob’s case. Jacob’s case gained massive media attention and ultimately led to the 1994 The Jacob Wetterling Crimes Against Children and Sexually Violent Offender Registration Act. The case of Jacob initiated the beginnings of tracking of sexual offenders as part of federal government policy. Throughout the episodes, Madeleine Baran guides listeners with questions that developed throughout her investigation of the Jacob Wetterling case. The narration and interviews takes listeners on a journey through the decisions and narratives of the many people directly and indirectly involved in Jacob’s case. She breaks down time and space between the events before and after Jacob’s abduction as she speaks with Jacob’s parents, law enforcement officials on the scene, and sexual assault survivors who had been attacked by Danny Heinrich (the offender) before Jacob’s abduction. The podcast series, In the Dark, illustrates the impact of one case on a nation and the development of federal sexual offender policy.
In the first few episodes, Baran looks at the prevalence of previously reported sexual abuse in St. Joseph, Minnesota prior to Jacob’s abduction. Baran highlights how previous awareness by law enforcement of previous involvement by Danny Heinrich in sexual crimes reported by other children was a potential key to solving Jacob’s case. In “The One Who Got Away,” law enforcement officials who worked in St. Joseph, Minnesota recalled how they found a photo among Danny Heinrich’s belongings of a young boy in his underwear during the investigation of Jacob’s case. At the time, law enforcement officials stated “it just didn’t look right” and disregarded photo as evidence. Jared Scheiri tells his story of how often he reached out to police to help them recognize that Jacob’s offender had the same modus operandi as Danny Heinrich. However, Baran notes that law enforcement failed to integrate these pieces of evidence into their investigation.
While Baran takes an objective look at the forensic practice, this review offers the perspective of the possible role of the passions, specifically moral disgust, in confronting sexual deviance and, in general, sexual abuse.
Moral disgust is a social emotion with three key features: the ideas of non-animality, contamination, and its anti-sociality (Nussbaum, 2004; Rozin, Haidt, & McCauley, 2008). Could the psychology of moral disgust inform the possible reasons why law enforcement struggled to see the dotted lines between the photos, previously reported sexual crimes, and Danny Heinrich? Phenomenology suggests that experiencing disgust motivates people to avoid and move away from the disgusted object or other. Also, disgust causes fear of contamination.
The rippling effect of moral disgust in sexual offender policy has been linked in social science research (Stevenson, 2014; Strupple, 2014; Willis, 2010). In episode 6, Baran talks about how the fear of Stranger Danger spread rapidly nationwide after Jacob’s abduction. In her interview with Patty Wetterling, Baran discusses how a national desire to contain sexual offenders led to government tracking of sexual offenders, and ultimately, the online sex offender registry. However, studies suggest that disgust is counterproductive to containing the problem of sexual offending because it sends sexual offenders and those struggling with pedophilia further into into hiding (Stevenson, 2014; Strupple, 2014; Willis, 2010). Although the podcast series focuses primarily on the role of law enforcement, the narratives described throughout In the Dark can be analyzed by listeners to gain insight as into the complex reality of how moral disgust is a social emotion that can create pitfalls in developing public safety approaches to sexual offending. If society experiences moral disgust when confronting what motivates people to commit sexual offenses, does that put us at a disadvantage to developing preventive solutions to prevent child sexual abuse? A close-listening of In the Dark brings up an important phenomenological question: do we shun ways of preventing sexual offending because of our moral disgust?
Stevenson, M. (2014). Disgust sensitivity predicts punitive treatment of juvenile sex offenders: The role of empathy, dehumanization, and fear. Analysis of Social Issues and Public Policy, 15(1), 177–197.