Hilarie Burton Morgan Has a Lot Invested in True Crime

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True crime is big money for many. For Hilarie Burton Morgan, it’s more personal.

Hilarie’s interest in crime goes far beyond her role as a presenter and investigator on Sundance TV’s True Crime Story: It Couldn’t Happen Here, tracking back to her college education and beyond.

We had a chance to catch up with Hilarie on Zoom to talk about the show, why she’s involved, how she hopes it helps bring justice to victims and those who have been left behind, and how your vote goes a long way to ensure justice is served.

Hilarie Burton for Episode 110 Dallas

So what was your interest in doing this kind of true crime programming?

This is the subject matter that I went to college for. I was studying psychological forensics in college. That was the trajectory that I was going to follow if I didn’t make it as an actor.

And so going to law school was something that I was very interested in, and I was going to Fordham at Lincoln Center, which is connected to Fordham’s Law School, and excited about that.

And then life takes a left turn, and you do something different for a couple of decades. But when we moved to this small community, I really fell in love with the Hudson Valley in New York and was rattled when a local trial became like front-page fodder for the community.

Hilarie Burton for Lifetime

A young woman who had been severely battered by her partner ended up shooting him, and she was sent to prison. And the judge said some really horrific things to her. And the prosecutor was incredibly misogynistic, even though it was a female prosecutor.

And I was really concerned that in a small town where everyone knows everyone, it became a conflict of interest to speak up because this judge was friends with friends of mine.

He went to all the same charity events that I went to. And so I realized that if it was happening here, in my community, it was more than likely happening everywhere.

And so, with the help of AMC, our studio, Sundance, and our incredible crew, we just put feelers out to see if there were more stories out there. And it’s been an avalanche. This is happening everywhere.

There is a lot of corruption in places of power. And a lot of small towns are having these heartbreaking stories swept under the rug. So we’re here to shine a light.

Vicky Shares with Hilarie

Wow, that’s amazing. Why do you think that small-town murders reign in the television landscape versus big-city murders?

Well, I think that women, in particular, are drawn to the true crime genre because we have always felt like victims. And women are researchers. And it’s almost like if you watch enough true crime, you can predict the bad things and therefore avoid them.

That victimology that we’ve grown up with, as American women, is something that we want to prevent. And so small towns have different mythology. They’re supposed to be the safest places on the planet. And we know very well that they are not.

Marginalized groups are particularly vulnerable in small towns. And so by coming in and providing a platform, where women get to tell their stories, where marginalized groups get to tell their stories, we’re giving them a resource that they’ve been denied thus far.

Surveying the Area

The true crime genre is also incredibly predatory. People want to hear the most salacious story they can think of. And then, after the 45 minutes of programming, they get to turn it off and go to bed. And that really bothered me. I know victims’ families, and they never get to turn the channel. They never get to turn it off.

And so it was really important to us that our programming was deeply rooted in advocacy. We did not want to be a vulture, like so many other shows out there, that come in and hear about the worst day of someone’s life and then go home.

So we’ve maintained pretty long-term relationships with the people who have been brave enough to come forward on our show. And that’s important. I think that’s what sets our show apart.

Do you think you’ll ever go back and revisit some of the small towns that you’ve already visited?

I think that’s a really important thing for us to do because what we’ve realized in these towns is that we have to fit these very big stories into 42 minutes of an episode.

Hilarie Burton and Vicky Buckwalter

And what we’ve realized is, we uncover one story, but then there are three or four other ones. There are prosecutors being disbarred. There are judges being kicked off the bench for corruption. There are sheriffs who have colluded with the families of the perpetrators.

I mean, there’s insanity happening, and it continues to happen when no one is holding them accountable. And so just one visit isn’t going to cut it. We need to check in again and again.

Did it surprise you that the level of corruption was so vast across the entire country versus just one town or another town? That it is more the norm than not?

It is terrifying.

Hilarie Burton Asks Questions

And I don’t want to be an alarmist or an extremist in saying that, but in all of the places we’ve gone to, there is at least one person in a position of power, whether it is a judge or a prosecutor or a sheriff or an attorney general, or someone who has been elected by the constituents there, who has either had inappropriate relations with a witness or gotten in trouble for drugs or been disbarred for poor judgment and corrupt dealings.

And then what happens is, they just get to go away, right? And all of the cases that they worked on for the last 10, 20 years, those rulings stand. The judicial system is not a system that self-corrects. They’re very hesitant to ever say, “We did something wrong.”

And I work in an industry as an actor, where literally, after every single take, the director comes up to you afterward, and it’s like, “How can we make it better? Do better. Do better.”

And so it’s very alarming for me to see such an important institution in our country not have the capacity to take notes, to self-correct, to say, “I can do better. Let me try again.”

Hilarie and Lynn in the Barn

What we’re up against right now is a real obstinence to testing DNA, to going back and looking at cases where there have been corrupt people involved. A lot of witness coercion, which we know now, is a major problem.

So it seems like the more we learn as a society about the judicial system, the more hesitant the judicial system is to take a good long look at themselves.

It takes voters, and it takes community members saying, “Your job is on the line. We want you to test that DNA. We want you to reexamine this case. We want this information to go before a grand jury.”

So that’s what’s so great about the army of people that we collected last season, is that they wrote letters and they made phone calls and they got involved, and it made a real difference because we’ve seen forward motion on two of our six episodes from last year. And if you can even help one person, that’s amazing.

Hilarie Burton with Lynn Dodenhoff

And is that the one thing that you want people to take away from watching this show? Not the fact that there are murders and other crimes, but more the fact that people don’t get answers or justice because of how the system is set up.

Yeah, I mean, we said in our original sales pitch for the show, we’re in every episode, there are two bad guys. There’s the person who committed the crime. And then there’s the system which re-victimizes members of these small towns. And the takeaway for us is that we have the power to fix it.

These are largely elected officials, but they’re the kind of people that you vote for in midterm elections or special elections. It’s not like the big ones. And I underestimated how much power those local officials have over your day-to-day life.

There are also just structural issues within the system. If you have a trial where something goes sideways, you don’t get to go to a new judge to take a second look at it.

The original judge is the one who sees the appeal. Now, why would any judge on the planet say, “Yeah, I messed up. This looks bad.”? Because they’ve got to go up for reelection in a couple of years.

Hilarie Burton and Cindy Kloch

So it’s learning about the system in a really layman way because the rest of us are just going about our day-to-day business. We’re taking our kids to school, we’re doing the grocery shopping. We’re trying to be good members of the community.

People in power who are abusing it bank on the fact that we’re not doing our homework and we’re not following up on them. So if we can provide a resource for people to learn more about this very important institution, it’s worth eight episodes. Join us.

I have one last question for you. With everything that you’ve just said, what advice would you give to people? When it comes to voting, you don’t get a lot of information. The judges are just there. And a lot of times, we just go, “Oh, they’re already on the bench. That’s fine.”

Where is the resource for people to do that homework so that they know not to vote for a bad judge, for example?

Yeah, I mean, so I would say the organizations that we’re working with this year are, When We All Vote, which is great. I would say the most important resource for me has been State Innocence Projects.

Hilarie Burton for True Crime Story: It Couldn't Happen Here 108

Everybody knows the national Innocence Project, but what I didn’t know before we started doing this show is that most states have their own chapter of The Innocence Project. And those are really the boots-on-the-ground people who are doing the work. And we’ve been lucky to work with a number of those organizations.

They’re the ones who will tell you what judge oversaw a wrongful conviction; what attorney general is pushing back against DNA testing.

And once you hear those names and they start ringing bells, when you go to the ballot box, you know not to vote for those people. If they’re getting in the way of information and justice, don’t vote for them.

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True Crime Story: It Couldn’t Happen Here airs weekly on SundanceTV on Thursdays at 10/9c and can also be found streaming on AMC+.

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She’s a member of the Critic’s Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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